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Jordan A to Z: P is for … Petra!

Words cannot adequately describe Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabateans.  If you are unfamiliar with the Nabateans, they were an Arab tribe descended from Ishmael’s eldest son Nebaioth.  They lived in the area that would be considered modern day southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia.  They were merchants and artisans whose society flourished for hundreds of years using Petra as their capital and trading hub.  Eventually the Romans came on the scene, and also the z, and the Muslims.  All left their imprint on Petra before it was lost to the sands of time following a series of devastating earthquakes.

Petra was rediscovered in modern times in 1812 by Swiss Johaan Burckhardt who, after years of training, masqueraded as an Arab merchant on his way to sacrifice at Aaron’s tomb.  Along the way he discovered the ancient city of Petra.

Today Petra is Jordan’s most popular tourist destination and it is easy to see why.  It is truly breath-taking.

I should stop writing and just let the pictures do the talking.  I visited Petra 6 times this past year (with out-of-town guests) and each time I notice something new.  Here are some pics I like.  Hope you like them too.

(If a picture is worth a 1000 words – here’s to my longest blog post ever)

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Jordan A to Z: N is for … Nana (or more accurately نعناع )

Nothing beats the smell of fresh picked Nana.  It is so delightfully refreshing and Jordanians use it in a handful of wonderful ways.  What pray tell is Nana?  First of all it is really نعناع  which when transliterated correctly looks like “na3naa3.”  For those readers not used to seeing words spelled with numbers, 3 is commonly used in the transliteration of Arabic to represent the Arabic letter 3ayn, which we do not have a formal equivalent of in the English language.  the ‘3’ is pronounced almost like the ‘a’ in ‘father’ but the sound comes from deeper in your throat with a fair amount of voicing.  And it’s a consonant rather than a vowel.  The sound is difficult for English speakers … so many default to some version of an ‘a’ sound, especially in words like Nana.

Oh, right nana! What is it?  Nothing less than the wonderfully delicious and ultimately refreshing … mint!

Anyone who has grown mint knows that it is off and running like a weed.  This is a great thing if you have uses for it … and the Jordanians have many.  Besides the ubiquitous garnish on hummus, baba gannouj and other spreads, salads and dips, mint has three uses in Jordan that I am particularly fond of.

Nana Number One – Mint Tea

شاي بنعناع

Probably more popular than water, you are never more than 50 yards away from a mint tea seller in Amman.  Whether it is from a cafe, a restaurant, a falafil cart, or simply a guy walking around with a teapot, a stack of plastic cups and a wad of mint stuffed in his belt … you can always find somewhere to get your fix.  I must confess that in my university study days I may have gotten addicted to having a hit of mint tea before facing class each day.  It’s hard to say what is most enticing . . . the caffeine, the copious amounts of sugar, or the nice fresh minty flavor.

Tea for two, Jordanian style

Nana Number Two – Mint Lemonade

ليمون بنعناع

Limon bi Nana or Mint Lemonade - a must try while in Jordan!

Ok, seriously, it may not be too much to say that you have not truly lived until you have tasted a Jordanian Mint Lemonade, or as it is called here ‘Limon bi Nana.’  It is so unique and refreshing!  Each place that serves it up has a slightly different recipe and spin.  Some add ice to make more of a slushy, others serve it as a juice.  Some places have more mint, others more sugar.  But in the end they are all roughly the same.  A very tart lemonade made with fresh squeezed lemons blended together with tons of mint and varying amounts of sugar.  I would say that most places go light on the sugar (which seems counter-cultural here in Jordan).  The result is the perfect summer drink!

Nana Number Three – Mint Flavored Hookah

A typical hookah or arghile pipe

Hookah is very popular in Jordan as it is all over the Middle East.  The name for it here is ‘arghile’ (pronounced ar-gee-la) or ‘sheesha’ (pronounced like it looks).  I think the term hookah is of Indian or perhaps Persian origin and is only just catching on here.  Usually when they refer to arghile in English, Arabs will call it ‘hubbly-bubbly’ which I had never heard until arriving in Jordan, so I wonder if it is a Britishism.

For those unfamiliar with the hookah – it is a water pipe that has been used for centuries by the Arabs for smoking tobacco.  In the US, the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s has forever tainted the image of a hookah as primarily being used to smoke illicit drugs.  Such is not the case here in the Middle East.  It’s just tobacco!  The term ‘sheesha’ doesn’t help as many American English speakers will automatically associate it with marijuana … but that is certainly not the case!

Arghila tobacco is unique in that it is very moist.  It is blended with molasses and different kinds of flavorings.  Jordanians prefer fruity flavors, so options tend to be: apple, double apple, cherry, melon, fruit cocktail, grape, etc.  Another popular vein is mint flavors.  There is just plain mint, but they also mix it with other flavors particularly lemon or grape.

Mint-flavored arghile tobacco

So it is entirely possible on a Thursday night outing in Amman to sit at a cafe enjoying a nice cool mint lemonade with a hookah filled with mint tobacco and chase it all down with some mint tea.  Perhaps a bit much all in one sitting … but all three are delicious reminders of life here in Jordan.

Jordan A to Z: M is for … Mansaf or Msakhan!

MMMmmmmmm . . . It is only fitting that ‘M’ is for two of the most delicious meals offered in Jordan!  While it is true that there are many delicious Arabic dishes that start with the letter M (check out Jim’s delicious post on Maqluube), these two are often at the top of the list as favorites.

Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish

A platter of mansaf.

Anyone who has traveled to Jordan, or even has read about traveling to Jordan has probably heard of Mansaf.  A guidbeook section on Jordanian cuisine cannot be complete without mentioning this tasty meal.  Even government websites extol the virtues of Mansaf.  So (for the uninformed), what is Mansaf? It is lamb  cooked till falling off the bone perfection, served over a bed of rice, topped with warm jameed (yoghurt sauce), sprinkled with pine nuts and/or almonds, and often accompanied by large pieces of shraak (Bedouin style flat bread).

An individual portion of mansaf.

At a restaurant, or I suppose in someone’s house, you might be served an individual serving on an individual plate.  However, mansaf is traditionally served on a huge round serving dish, and is consumed as a communal meal straight from the platter.  Traditionally, the platter is set on the floor and 10 or so people would sit around it and eat everything with their hands.  This takes some getting used to for the uninitiated or cutlery-dependent, but really is not so bad once you get the hang of it.  (The trick is rolling the rice into a ball around a core piece of chicken.  Also, remember this has to be done only with the right hand as the left is considered unclean.)

Of course some Jordanians will offer you a plate and spoon or fork if you are visiting. But not all.  And if you are able to try your best at eating with your hands without batting an eye … your status definitely goes up in the sight of your host.  Once when I visited a bedouin village, I ate mansaf with my hands without hesitation.    Later when I was walking around meeting people in the village my host told everyone, “he eats like us …. with his hands!”

Eating mansaf Bedouin-style!

You say Musakhan, I say Msakhan

A typical platter of Msakhan.

Another delicious dish starts with ‘m’ but after that there everyone seems to disagree how to spell the word in English.  There are a handful of variants … but they all spell one thing in my  book … delicious!  Now I must say from the outset that msakhan, although very popular in Jordan, is actually of Palestinian origin.  But seeing as how 40-60% of the population are Palestinian or of Palestinian background, msakhan  remains a crowd pleaser here in Jordan.

A smaller plate of Msakhan to be shared with 2-3 people.

And really, what’s not to like?  Msakhan consists of carmelized onions, warm bread, and chicken cooked to perfection.  First a ton of onions are cooked in olive oil with a citrusy but purple spice known as sumac.  Then a layer of flatbread is arranged on a platter.  Some of the onion mixture is ladled over the bread, then the chicken is placed down, and often more onion mix and more bread.  The whole thing is cooked in an oven and the result is … soooo very good!

The chicken and the bread are often both crispy on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside.  The onion mixture bakes onto the bread creating a on-of -a-kind crust that is really hard to stop eating.  As with Mansaf pine nuts or almonds are usually sprinkled over the finished product.  It too is often served on a large communal platter and of the two dishes is by far the easier to eat sans utensils.

An award-winning platter of Msakhan in Palestine in 2010.

In Conclusion

Both meals are quite heavy and not for the faint of heart.  You will probably not be doing your cholesterol any favors, especially with msakhan.  But if you have an opportunity to experience either one … you must! Beyond tasting great,  both of these dishes hold a special place in Jordanian and Palestinian culture. One is a source of national pride and hearkens back to the country’s Bedouin roots.  The other is like Middle Eastern soul food that reminds many of grandma’s kitchen and table.

So the real question is … which do you prefer?  Answer the poll below and let us know!

Jordan A to Z: J is for … (the) Jordan River!

Satellite image showing the Sea of Galilee in the North (top) connected to the Dead Sea in the south by the Jordan River Valley.

The eponymous Jordan River serves as the western border of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.   The name has possibly descended from an ancient Aramaic word yerdon, meaning “slope,” which is also reminiscent of the Hebrew word yardon, meaning “descend.”  The Arabic urdun is probably related to one or both of these words as all three languages are linguistic cousins and share ancient roots.  Both monikers would be apt for this river that falls from the flanks of Mount Hermon (summit: 2,814 m) to the Dead Sea (400 m below Sea Level), making the Jordan River the lowest flowing river on Earth.  This geographic morsel joined with the fact that the Jordan River Valley is the northern point of origin of the Great Rift valley would make this humble river a significant topographical feature that cannot be ignored, even if it’s historic reputation did not proceed it.

Modern-day explorers are often surprised when they finally make it to the shores of the once mighty Jordan.  This river that religious texts tell us once required a miracle in order cross could now be waded in parts if it were not a highly monitored international border.  Just before it finally drops into the Dead Sea the Jordan seems more of a narrow, muddy, slowly meandering creek (or “crick” as we would say back home) and not a thing of miracles.  The reason for this is simple … it is the major source of fresh water in a very arid region and has been used extensively for agriculture and other purposes by the nations it runs through and between.

The Jordan River's southern end as it is today.

It is estimated that only 10% of the water that starts at the headwaters of the Jordan finally make it to the Dead Sea. Much of this water is pumped out by the nation of Israel, but Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are said to utilize it as well.  As you can imagine accurate figures about this sort of thing are hard to come by and are jaded by politics.  Nonetheless it seems quite obvious that Israel takes the lion’s share of the water resources from this international boundary water.  Environmentalists warn that the ecological impact of water mismanagement in the Jordan Valley may be irreversible.

Despite these dire warnings, there is one bright spot on the banks of the Jordan – even if it is not an ecological one.  Shortly after the Jordanian and Israeli governments signed a peace treaty in 1994, the Jordanians began demilitarizing a valley that was full of land mines.  This lead to a Catholic monk and archeologist, Father Piccirillo exploring the area to find the Biblical “Bethany beyond-the-Jordan” where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  He made incredible archeological discoveries and under the auspices of HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed the foundations of many ancient churches were uncovered.  Many scholars now agree that this is the most likely site for the baptism of Jesus.

Tourists and Pilgrims can visit easily visit the site on a day-trip from Amman, even combining such a visit with a dip in the Dead Sea and taking in the view from high atop nearby Mt. Nebo where Moses gazed upon  the land of promise before passing away.  Information about the Bethany beyond-the-Jordan site can be found here.  It is well worth the visit.

Ruins of several churches on the spot where many scholars believe is the authentic location (in Jordan) of the Baptism of Jesus

(As a side note I must say if you are planning a joint visit to both Israel and Jordan … Please save visiting the baptism site for your time in Jordan!  The traditional Israeli site in the north near the Sea of Galilee has no historical significance whatsoever, and the Israeli’s have constructed their own viewing platform across from the Jordanian site.    They call the place Qasr al-Yahud (castle of the Jews).  Negative reactions from the Jordanian government and press to the opening of the Israeli side can be read here.  The fact is that the overwhelming  majority of compelling archeological discoveries are on the Jordanian side.  If you want to experience this bit of history, please spend your money on the side of the river where the event is most likely to have happened.  Thanks!)

Jordan A to Z: ​A is for … Amman!

Jordan A to Z:  A is for … Amman!

Panoramic view of Amman from the Citadel hill.

Amman is the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  The kingdom (pop. 6.5 million) is conveniently located between Palestine, Israel,  Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Red and Dead Seas.  2.5 million reside in the city of Amman, which can be located at the following coordinates: 31° 56′ 0″ N, 35° 56′ 0″ E.  I have lived here in Amman for the last 3.5 years and I can honestly say that I love it here.  Everyday I walk out of my house it is like stepping into a cultural and historical learning lab.  As with anyplace in the world Amman has its high points and low points.  In this case both figuratively and literally as it is a city spread out over 19 hillsides.

Greater Amman Municipality Website – Contains a lot of good information, including current events and initiatives around the city

Amman is one of the oldest settled cities in the world.  In Roman times it was known as the city of Philadelphia  (meaning: brotherly love) and was one of the chief cities of the Decapolis.  At that time the area was under Roman rule and there are many ruins from that era that remain in the city today, including a well preserved (and restored) amphitheater that is still in use for concerts and shows.  The area has been under a variety of rulers throughout history: the British, the Ottomans, the Umayyads, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Nabateans and all the way back into the earliest days of recorded history the city was the capital of the ancient Ammonite people.  The influences of all of these times and rulers can be seen throughout the city if one pays attention in the right way.

View of Amman with Roman Amphitheater pre-1950

View of Roman Amphitheater today ... note all of the buildings on what was once a barren hillside.

Today Amman is a bustling metropolis … but most of the development has happened since the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Modern Amman is a study in contrasts.  There are many uber-rich folks and a lot of the very poor as well.  Many label the city as divided between two halves with the balad or Old City (in this case) being the dividing line:

East Amman: poorer, more conservative socially, religiously and perhaps politically.  More traditionally “eastern” in its feel.  You won’t find any big supermarkets, mega malls, major hotels, or fast food chains on this side of town.  People shop at their local neighborhood butcher, fruit stand, and bakery.  The pace of life is more relaxed and the neighborhoods tend to be more crowded and honestly a little run-down.  Arabic is the default language.  You will find very few non-Arab  foreigners living here, although we did for 2.5 years and it was great for learning language and culture.

East Amman

West Amman: wealthier, and more liberal (at least by local standards).  It is more “western” in its feel.  You will find almost any western thing you are looking for on this side of town … McDonald’s, Starbucks, Chili’s, Safeway (supermarket), the Marriott  … fast food, big supermarkets, malls, major hotels, etc.  Of course Arabic is the official language, but many people on this side of town speak English and will actually prefer to communicate with non-Arabs in this manner.  Popular neighborhoods include: Jabal Amman, Abdoun, Swufiyeh, Um Udhayna, Khalda, and Jubeiha … just to name a few.

Western style coffee shop at a mall in West Amman

I also like to identify Central Amman: for me this is comprised of the three hill-top neighborhoods of Jabal Amman, Jabal al-Webdeh, and Jabal Hussein, located in the middle of town … just west of the balad and running north.  These three neighborhoods are a bit older and more residential.  They seem to be a happy medium between east and west to me.  Mostly smaller shops with some modern conveniences, but with wider and cleaner streets and only minutes away from everything available in west Amman while still retaining some local culture and flavor.

Jabal Hussein, Jabal Amman and points West from the Citadel hill

So much for short posts!  That’s it for A is for … Amman!  Enjoy the gallery below and look tomorrow for Jordan A to Z: B is for ….. ?

Also if you have a moment check out these 5 random links from the A to Z challenge (I cannot vouch for their content … I am simply providing random links from the participant list at the A to Z website).

The Jersey Shore Mom     Doris and Dave’s Excellent Adventure     Tasha Seegmiller     Libby Heily     Life’s Autumns

Some Random Pics of Amman

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A year ago today . . .

We arrived in Jordan.  August 7th, 2008.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year!  Right now, sitting here typing this post, it seems as though time has flown by incredibly fast.  But in reality, this year has had its ups and downs – fast parts and slow parts.  Adjusting to a new life and culture is one thing, but doing it as a family of four is entirely another matter!

In honor of this now important “anniversary” in our lives, I thought I would post a couple of pics and share a little bit of what it was like leaving our old home and arriving in our new one.

This was the scene in my in-law’s garage at 2:00 AM on August 6th of last year.

All packed and ready to go . . .

All packed and ready to go . . .

That was 12 of the 16 bags we brought with us.  I know – it sounds like a lot, and yes we had to pay some fines.  But this was the culmination of a lot of pac king and repacking, sifting, sorting and decision making.  Exactly a month before on July 6th we had left the Chicago area with all of our worldly belongings packed in a Penske moving truck.

Chicago to Jordan by way of Ohio, New York, and Connecticut

Chicago to Jordan by way of Ohio, New York, and Connecticut

We spent July on our affectionately dubbed “Farewell Tour” from Chicago to Ohio to New York to Connecticut.  Don’t worry we didn’t drive the Penske the whole time.  (My brother and I did have a crazy but fun 2-day trip from OH to CT and back to get all of our stuff into storage at my in-laws.  Ask me about how we got from the the truck rental return to the Hartford airport sometime.)

Any American who has had to move their entire household from one state to another knows that the whole process of dealing with “stuff” and what to do with it is mind numbing.  It’s incredible how much stuff we accumulate as Americans.  We were a family of 4 living in a modest 2 bedroom apartment.  We had a garage sale and gave a ton of stuff away to charity to downsize before the move yet somehow we still managed to fill a 20 foot moving truck with all of our “essential” things!

The last week and a half of our Farewell Tour was spent in CT at my in-laws.  My wife and I had the tedious chore of whittling all those possessions down to what we would actually bring with us to Jordan. In retrospect those 12 bags above seem pretty good when compared with the whole truckload of stuff we left Chicago with.  I actually challenge any American family of 4 to pack up their life into 16 bags (only 4 oversized duffles allowed)!

I hadn’t planned on being up till 2:00 AM on the day we were leaving, but that’s how these things go isn’t it?  I was making last minute decisions on what to take or not to take and making sure every bag was packed as full as possible without being too full.  Morning came early and it was a bit of a puzzle packing 16 bags, 4 adults, and 2 kids into my in-laws mini-van.  Believe it or not we all fit.  The trip to JFK airport was fairly uneventful and as far as I know we didn’t do any permanent damage to the minivan’s suspension!

Anyone who has flown through JFK knows it’s kind of a madhouse. The day we flew out was no different.  Fortunately we had a nice guy checking in our luggage.  He waived part of the fine and much to our son’s delight slapped a huge red fragile sticker on his suitcase of toys and stuff.  Unfortunately airports are no longer the places of memorable and extended good-byes that they once were.  Does anyone remember the times in days gone by when your loved ones would wait with you at the gate to make sure you got off safely?  Or they would greet you at the gate with smiles and hugs upon arrival?  No more.  After we checked all the luggage we were told we couldn’t wait where we were standing and would have to go outside or go through security.  Shortly thereafter someone came through asking for people flying internationally and led us briskly to another terminal.  My in-laws followed as far as we could and for reasons I can’t quite remember now we made our hasty and tearful goodbyes near a security gate.

And we proceeded to wait for hours (or so it seemed) on the other side of security because of some sort of delay.

A soon-to-be world traveler

A soon-to-be world traveler

I don’t remember a whole lot about the flight except that it was long and fairly uneventful.  Transatlantic travel with small children is always kind of dicey, but all-in-all things went smoothly.

Upon arrival at the airport in Amman everything went better than expected as well. We cruised through immigration thanks to a mysterious stranger who waved us from the end ofa long line, through an empty turnstile, checked our passports and sent us to baggage claim.  We grabbed a couple of carts and loaded up our 16 bags, which had seemed like so few when deciding what to take and what to leave behind in CT, but now seemed like way too many!  Somehow we managed to get them through the security scanners and to the curb where we found the taxi stand.

It’s funny to think of how little Arabic I knew then.  I had practiced and practiced what I would say and even had a map marked with the location of our Apartment.  The dilemma was that we had so many bags that we had to take two taxis.  V. knew absolutely nothing about Amman and we had no way to communicate with each other.  What was I to do?  Send my wife and kids in a taxi with a strange driver and no idea where to go?  Put the whole family and some bags in one taxi and the bulk of the luggage in the other?  Would we ever see our 10 of our precious 16 bags again?  In the end I went in one taxi with our daughter and half the bags in one taxi and sent my wife and son and the other half of the bags in the other.

I thought for sure with the map the taxi drivers would have no trouble finding our new place.  But the map only seemed to confuse matters more.  There was about10 minutes of heated discussion between 4 cabbies and the map on the hood of a taxi.  In the end I seemed like they knew where we wanted to go, so off we went.  Once we got on the highway the other taxi sped off, and my driver said, “he doesn’t know where he’s going.”  I can laugh about it now, but it was a bit nerve wracking at the time.  Eventually we caught up to them and my guy led us into the right neighborhood, but from a different direction than I had ever come before.  He kept askingif I knew where the apartment was and I kept saying yes, hoping I would eventually see something familiar. Eventually I did.  And even though we had to go the wrong way down a one way street we arrived safe and sound with all our bags in our new digs.

Or so we thought.

We were all pretty exhausted from the trip and we decided to make up the beds. It’s then we discovered that the suitcase with all of the kid’s bedding (and who knows what else) was missing.  My stomach dropped and my mind raced as I tried to remember if we had taken it off the belt in the airport. Had we left it on the curb in the chaos of getting the taxi?  Had it even arrived at the airport?  If we had been at home in the States I would have called the airline or the airport, but in that moment I was instantly helpless.  Even though I had a cell phone I had no phonebook, no internet access, no idea who to call.  After a few moments of indecsion it seemed like the only thing to do was to go back to the airport.  But how?  The airport taxis were only one way.  I had no idea what to tell a regular taxi to take me to the airport nor knew how much such a trip would cost.

I found our Egyptian building super and tried to explain the problem to him, but he didn’t really understand.  He took me to an American neighbor who knew Arabic and he was able to help translate.  Within 10 minutes the super had found a friend who would take me to the airport in his personal car for an undetermined amount of money.  (Our neighbor recommended 30 JD – which seemed reasonable as I had paid the airport taxi 20 for one-way).  Saying goodbye to the wife and kids I got in his car and as the suns rays were lengthening I couldn’t believed that on my very first day in Jordan I was heading back to the airport to look for a bag that might not even be there while my wife sat with our kids in a completely new apartment in strange new surroundings.

Our super’s friend didn’t speak much English.  He had an icon of St. George hanging from his rear-view mirror (the dragon being slain was the tip-off) so I tried to make small talk about that unsuccessfully. When we got to the airport he said he would wait for me.  It took me a  half hour or so to sort out what office I needed to go to for lost baggage. It had a thick plate glass window with a small hole to speak through.  A burly man asked for my passport, which I slid under the window.  He immediately left the office with it.  I didn’t really know if I would see it again.  Fortunately, he returned in 10 or 15 minutes and said that he had found the bag and to meet him at the security gate.

I tipped him 10 JD, found St. George and his car and watched the landscape zoom by as the sun set.  Not exactly how I expected to spend my first day in Jordan.

When I got back I discovered that despite the fact that all V. had been able to serve the kids for dinner was plain white rice, she had met a young Egyptian neighbor.  She spoke fluent Arabic and English and happened to know mutual friends of ours from the States.  Small world.

When I think about this story I am amazed how much we’ve learned in a year.  And am mindful of how much we still have to learn. It’s been a difficult but good year.  We were of course really worried about how the kids would handle the transition.  The picture below kinda says it all.  It was taken the day after we arrived . . . and a year later they’re still smiling!

Still smiling after 2 days and 3000 miles of travel!

Still smiling after 2 days and 3000 miles of travel! (Aug 2008) No we didn't ship them in the cardboard box!

And still smiling after 12 months and 3000 falafils!  (Aug 2009)

And still smiling after 12 months and 3000 falafils! (Aug 2009)