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  • August 2020
    M T W T F S S

Buying a Phone Charger

I used to think there were three price-levels in Jordan:

  • The price for tourists and wealthy foreigners
  • The price for foreigners who can bargain
  • The local price.

One of my best purchasing moments came when I figured out how to bypass all the super nice phones that shopkeepers like to sell foreigners and by a 15JD no-frills model that suits me just fine and gets a nod of approval when I tell any local how much I paid for it.  Its as if they are taking note, “here is a foreigner who has his wits about him, it’s going to be hard to take advantage of him!”  (I wish!)

However, now I realize now that the prices here aren’t strictly: dumb  foreigner, smart foreigner, & local.  Here’s a story to illustrate my point.

Buying a phone charger

After graduation we were riding back to our apartment with our regular taxi driver.  He takes us to school every morning and runs us around on special errands when needed.  He’s a family man who has been driving taxi in Amman for almost 20 years.  We pay him well, but he treats us very well and trust him 100%.  He’s been a good source of Arabic practice (99% of our interaction is in Arabic), cultural insight and practical help in the last 9 months.  He’s kinda like an uncle to us and we really appreciate him.

Anyways, my wife reminded me that we needed a new charger for our cell phones, so I asked our friend if he knew of a place to buy one between where we were and our home.

“Brahim, of course!  I know a place in WaHidat.”

(He always calls me Brahim – short for Ibrahim.  And WaHidat is the Palestinian refugee camp near our neighborhood.

Me: “You are fine taking us there?”

Him: “Of course, but you should have told me before.  I have 5 chargers in my house.”

Me: “Thanks.  You are very good, but it doesn’t matter, we can buy one in WaHidat.  It will just take a minute.”

Him: “No Brahim, you are very good.  It is no problem.  You are welcome here.”

As we drove on we had a good laugh.  The word for charger is “shaHin” but I kept saying “SaHin” which means plate.

When we got to waHidat our taxi friend said, “Ok, please give me your phone.  Because you are a foreigner they will give you a bad price.”

I handed him the phone and 10 JD.  If I was in West Amman I might expect to pay 8 or 9 JD, but here I figured it would cost 4 or 5 JD.  I asked if I could go with him and he said , “Of course, but Brahim please do not speak.”  LOL – there’s a good commentary on my level of Arabic!

As with many things for sale here in Amman there were a number of phone shops clustered together on one corner.  We went to the first one and our taxi friend asked about a charger.  He obviously entered into negotiations with the shopkeeper on the price.  It ended with the Arabic sign for “no” on the part of my friend.  This is a tilt up of the chin with a cluck of the tongue.  Yeah it sounds and looks rude to Americans but here it’s the equivalent to shaking your head side-to-side.

I asked how much the shopkeeper wanted, “2.5 JD – expensive!”  I laughed because I thought he was joking.  He wasn’t.

We went to 4 more shops but none of them had the charger we needed. In the fifth shop sat a man in traditional garb with a long beard and muslim hat.  There were no negotiations here, just a straightforward asking for a charger, examining of the phone and exchange of goods and money.  As he handed back my phone, change, and new charger I asked how much it was.

“1.5 JD.  That’s a normal price.”

We both laughed.

In the last 9 months I had thought I had made a lot of progress away from getting ripped off as a foreigner.  In some places (like Carrefour and Cozmo) the prices are fixed and there’s no bargaining.  But on a lot of other things here there seems to be plenty of room to negotiate.  Upon further reflection on stories like this one, I’ve revised my theoretical price-levels to the following:

  • The price for tourists and wealthy foreigners
  • The price for foreigners who speak Arabic
  • The price for foreigners who can haggle
  • The price for wealthy locals (may be equal or more than the one above)
  • The price for working class locals

That being said it’s difficult to make hard and fast rules on this.  Some things have negotiable prices (furniture, housewares, appliances, electronics, apparently cell phone chargers), but other things (like food, medicine, water) don’t.  Some shopkeepers seem to negotiate, others not so much.  If you know a shopkeeper well, you are better off assuming he is giving you his best price rather than insult him by negotiating.

After the purchase of the cell-phone charger it made me think – am I getting ripped off by paying 4 JD for something my local working class friend can get for 1.5 JD?  Or is he getting a well-deserved break on the price?  Should my goal as a comparatively wealthy (for Jordan, not by US standards) foreigner be to get the cheapest local price all the time, or is it valid for me to pay a little more because my wallet can bear it and the shopkeeper needs it more than I do?  Are foreginers who haggle seen as culturally saavy or cheapskates?  Let me know what you think!

Eating Internal Organs After Midnight

Since arriving here in Jordan I’ve noticed a fondness for making sandwiches out of things the last time I took a knife too was in High School Biology class.

A couple of weeks ago I was out driving after midnight.  Unusual on both accounts.  But, for some reason we had a rental for a couple of days (I can’t seem to remember why – too many vocab words jamming my short term memory) and I was out late at a tea shop with a couple of my friends.  Late night tea and hookah drinking always makes me hungry.  Yeah I meant to say hookah drinking – oddly enough the phrase for smoking here is “drinking tobacco.”  So, I was hungry after a night of drinking – but that means something way different back home than it does here!

I was driving through the old city just seeing what was open at this time of night.  Of course, there was Hashem’s – the tried and true falafil shop of falafil shops.  But I wasn’t in the mood.  Then I saw this little sandwich shop that I’d always meant to check out but never had.  It was still open and showed no signs of closing anytime soon.  It was the kind of place where you give your order to a guy out front in a little booth and he takes your money and gives you a little slip of paper to take to the appropriate station inside for your sandwich.  By sight I’ve always seen that they have shawerma, falafil and some other more (ahem) adventurous fare, but the menu is 100% in Arabic and it’s always so crowded during the day.  I never feel like embarrassing myself.   But after midnight, even though there were bright lights, loud music, and customers there seemed to be more workers than customers and I thought maybe I could ask a few questions without embarrassing myself or holding up the line too much.

I parked the car on the street next to some white service (pronounced serveese) taxis and approached the booth.  Sitting inside was a young man sporting the long beard, grey robe and white hat that seems to typify more conservative Islamic types around here.  We smiled and greeted each other in Arabic.  I asked forgiveness for my poor Arabic and asked what kind of sandwiches were available.  He laughed and told me to look around inside and then come place my order.

I walked past the soda cooler, juice dispensers, shawerma and falafil stations.  Neither of them interested me that night.  I found myself in the  back corner at the mystery meat counter.  Like a moth drawn to a flame. I eyed a guy deftly chopping and rolling innards into oddly appetizing looking sandwiches.  My stomach growled.  I must have been really hungry.

But first I wanted to know what I was dealing with.  There was a rather large black falafil-ly looking thing.  The guy only spoke arabic and tried to explain to me what it was.  I didn’t understand, so we moved down the line to sheep brains, tongue, and then liver – boh chicken liver and sheep liver.  Next to them was apparently a pile of sheep-cheek meat.  I am not making this up.   Then some other thing which try as he might the patient sandwich maker couldn’t explain to me.  Perhaps it was just as well.  There the internal organs sat in food service containers as if they were about to be put out on the Salad Bar at Pizza Hut.  And well stocked – it seemed as if they were expecting a run on brains at 1 AM!

In the end I opted for the liver sandwich.  Sheep liver.  I decided to save chicken liver for another day.    He spooned a generous portion of liver into a pita, then placed it in a sandwich press for a minute or too.  Next came tomatoes and a spritz of lemon juice and a generous shake of salt.  He rolled it up in some paper and – voila- Taco Bell Jordan style!  Believe it or not it was pretty tasty!

The norm seemed to be standing around on the curb and noshing on organ filled pitas, so I tucked in out front.  Theyoung guy with long beard in the booth struck up a conversation with me, asking where I was from.  When he found out he automatically assumed I was not a Muslim.  Or perhaps it was because I did not invoke the name of Allah before devouring my liver and tomato on a pita.  You can be sure I prayed over it silently!  We had chatted briefly on why I was not a Muslim when an off-duty service driver walked up and joined the conversation.

He had a long white beard, a white Islamic hat to match, and  ajovial smile.  We exchanged greetings and he began to outline the fact that both religions wanted peace.  We started in Arabic, but he quickly switched to his English, which was far better than my Arabic.  He went on to say that the whole world was sick of war and that all people wanted peace now.  It was only governments that still wanted war.  He went on to tell me that he had read over 5000 books, including Tolstoy, Doestoevsky, and Sartre.  I believed him. No offense intended, but my experience has been that most service taxi drivers probably wouldn’t even recognize those names.  We swapped a few thoughts on politics and literature and enjoyed the crisp night air and our sandwiches made of internal organs.

In the end he extolled the virtues of having an Islamic wife and suggested I send mine to a class to learn how to become one as she would then undoubtedly make me very happy. Marital  life had not been part of our discussion, but I took it in stride and smiled.

“But this is  only my advice, please do as you like,” he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling good-naturedly.

With that we exchanged names, shook hands, invoked the peace of God upon each other, cordially hoping that God would bring us together again sometime in the future, and turning, we went our separate way.  Ahhhhhh . . . . Amman after midnight!

The case of the missing branches

It had been a bad day already.

The toilet was broken. The kids were nutty and hard to get out the door by 7:30 AM.  At school I had a test and a presentation.  After school Victoria and the kids were locked out, so I had to leave a study session early and make the long trek across town to unlock the door.

Walking down the block , I noticed a ton of branches in the dumpster. Bushy green ones that looked kind of familiar. I rounded the corner onto our side street and thought something looked odd about our garden but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I entered the gate and immediately realized that our trees had been stripped bare to about 5 or 6 feet above the wall. Where there once had been a natural screen of green blocking the view from the street into our garden there remained only tree trunks bearing the scars of branches brutally turn off. My stomach flipped and my heart skipped.Who could have done this?  I just looked at the blank garden wall and the open expanse of sky above.  My blood was simmering and on its way to a boil.

I needed to find Joe, our building super.  I was sure he must have seen something.  (No his name isn’t really Joe.)  Like most building supers here in Jordan he’s Egyptian.  Which means he doesn’t always get treated very well, and he works his butt off to make a substandard (even for here) living.   His family of 5 gets two rooms to live in (not a full apartment), and he gets 10JD a month from each of the tenants.  For this he is constantly helping us with all the menial things of life like taking out garbage, keeping the building and outside area clean, making repairs or finding someone else who can, etc., etc.  To generate extra income he pays bills for an extra $1/bill, schlepps gas canisters for people’s stoves (for 50 scents) and washes cars for $1 a wash.  He’s almost always cheerful and if he doesn’t know how to get a job done he knows someone who does.  It seems like Joe is always available, except on Friday mornings when he goes to the Coptic church across town.  Otherwise if he’s not around, the call of “Ya, Joe!” goes out and usually sooner rather than later he is found.

That day I didn’t have to look far.  He was walking up the side street outside of our garden gate and greeted me with his usual smile and a wave.   He offered me a typical greeting in Arabic which I ignored.

In Arabic I asked him, “What happened to our trees?! Did you see who did this?! What was the problem!?”

“Oh no problem Mister,” Joe smiled.

“But who cut the trees?”

Joe’s smile faltered, “I cut the trees for you. Very good, yes?”

I was shocked.  The green grit covering his forehead and shoulders should have tipped me off, but I hadn’t even considered that Joe would be the culprit.  It seemed so unlike him to do such a thing without asking first.  I was so angry. I didn’t even know what to say.

“Mister, is there a problem? This good for trees.”

“oh, really?” It was all I could manage to say.

“Oh yes, very good.” I think he really believed it.

“Really?” I walked to my door and unlocked it.

“Mister are you angry from me?” Now, truly, I love Joe.  He’s a great guy and it’s a good thing too. I just looked at the trees.

“Mister? Are you angry from me?” I usually find it slightly amusing the Arabs say angry “from” instead of angry “with”; not today.

“Well, it’s just that before no people could look into our garden and now anyone can look into it,” even more than the shoddy job, I was mourning our loss of privacy.

He paused and looked at the trees. It was as if a light was being turned on verrrrry slowly. “Ohhh. Mister, I am very sorry.”

Unfortunately sorry doesn’t bring back tree branches or privacy. I didn’t tell him that.

I stewed about it most of the afternoon as we were getting ready to host a dinner party for a friend returning stateside and I was waiting for the plumber Joe had arranged to come fix our toilet.  Meanwhile Joe the Super returned an hour later.  I walked out into the garden to see what he wanted.

“I am very sorry Mister for the trees. In one month maybe it will be ok.” We both looked at the gaping whole between the two trees and people walking by on the street. Joe rubbed his jaw, “Ok – maybe in three months. Those trees grow fast.”

I don’t think I said anything. I might have grunted. He said, “Maybe four months.”

I said, “yeah,” and just stared at the neighboring building and the blank sky and had visions of children hanging over the wall and watching us in the garden. The sun beat down on us and it was as if the temperature in the garden had already gone up several degrees.  I could tell we were now in for a hot summer.

He replied, “Maybe I can hang a curtain above the wall.”  A suggestion that given our neighborhood is not as strange as you might think.  Two of our neighbors have “porch curtains.”  I think both have opted for the bright yellow and blue stripes. Nice, but maybe just a tad 2001 for my taste.

“No, no, no, I don’t want that.”

“Mister, I am very sorry. Are you angry from me?”

I sighed. “No Joe, it would be impossible for me to be angry with you, you are a good man, but next time you need to ask me before you do anything like this.”

He nodded and smiled, “Ok I will ask next time.”  There was a silence as we stood.  Perhaps we were mourning the lost branches.  I may have been thinking something along the lines of, “There will be no next time!”  Joe finally said, “Is your wife angry from me?”

This time I smiled, “No Joe.”

“Ok, thank you Mister, you good, very good. I am very sorry.  The plumber will be here soon.”  With that he turned and left the garden.

I went back inside and sighed again. I made up my mind that they were just trees and, like hair, they will grow back. And then I thought about the end of the story about the prophet Jonah …

5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:5-11, NIV)

I realized I didn’t have any right to be angry about the trees. I didn’t tend them or make them grow.  They were here when we arrived and will hopefully be here when we leave.  I’m sure that there are many more things to be concerned about in the great city of Amman than a few branches from the trees in my garden.

Just Another Bag of Bread

To the untrained eye it may just look like another bag of bread. Of course, to the untrained eye it may not even look like that. Yes, this is generally how we buy our bread or khubz (خُبز) here in Jordan. We try to get it fresh from a nearby bakery every couple of days, but can also pick it up day-old from any number of little convenient-store-like shops.

Xubz (pita bread) from a local maxbaz (bakery)

Xubz (pita bread) from a local maxbaz (bakery)

The bread itself is flat and round and has a pocket like a pita. It comes in small (pictured here) and large sizes. It is so good fresh and still warm from the bakery. It’s fluffy, soft-but-not-too-soft, chewy, and just a touch of sweetness. You can’t buy anything like it in the States. Pita back home tends to be either paper thin, or super thick, and usually tough and stale – this stuff is just right.  When you buy it at the bakery they pick it up off from the wooden rack and put the amount you want directly in  a plastic grocery bag.

But I digress . . .

Last night I picked up our weekly meal of “Dream Chicken.” Dream is the name of a restaurant in our neighborhood. It’s not much to look at, but the food is great. They serve up rotisserie chicken, hummus, falafil, foul, french fries, and a couple of different Middle Eastern salads. The guys that work there are Egyptian and for whatever reason they’ve taken a liking to me – it’s usually an hour excursion to go get our supper. Last night they sat me down at the back table where workers sit in between customers, served me tea and we had a rambling conversation as I sipped tea and watched them do their jobs. (but that’s another post entirely).

As I left Dream and was walking down the hill, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for bread. I had no worries as they actually get all their bread from a bakery (maxbaz – مَخبَز) just 3 or 4 doors down. I looked over but the door where you usually tell the boy how much bread you want was closed. Wondering what I was going to do, I noticed another door that I had never seen open before. It obviously led into the inner workings of the bakery with the big mixer, ovens, empty bread racks, and flour everywhere.

I was already several steps down the hill when I decided to to do a very Arab thing. I walked back up and stepped a couple of feet into the obviously closed bakery and had the following conversation:

me: assalaam alaikum (Peace be upon you)
boy: wa’alaikum asalaam (and also on you)
me: ma fii xubz? (there is no bread?)
boy: ma fii! (there is none)

Just as I was about to turn and walk out a man emerged from the back room)

man: la! fii! fii xubz, bas zgiir. (No, there is. There is bread, but only small ones)
me: ma fii mush kalle. biddi zgiir, law samaat. (there is no problem, I would like small ones, if you please).

The man handed me a bag full of bread.

me: salaam idayak. qaddaysh? (peace on your hands. How much?)
man: rubiah (a 1/4 dinar aprox 35 cents)
me: tfaddil (please take this)
man: u idayak (and also peace on your hands)
me: ma’salammi (goodbye)
man: ma’salammi (goodbye)

The man went right back to his work and I left the shop.

As I walked out I realized that I had just had the conversation. I had just walked into a neighborhood shop and had a very normal everyday conversation including an exchange of money and goods with absolutely no hitch. No questions, no stumbling over greetings or amounts of money, no strange looks or questions about where I’m from. The whole encounter probably lasted less than a minute, and the conversation was pretty basic but I felt like I had passed a significant language learning milestone!


Cool Arabic language note:

The Arabic language works on a system of three-letter roots.  Prefixes and suffixes are added, and vowels are changed to change the meaning.  So:

xabaz خَبَز   means “to bake”

xubz خُبز means “bread”

maxbaz مَخبَز   means “bakery”

ps – the “x” is pronnounced like a combination ‘k’ and ‘h’, kinda like the last sound in “Bach”