Mafraq is a city only a short ride away from the dig house in Umm el-Jimal, or about 10 miles. During many afternoons between work periods of digging, then cleaning pottery, many of the students including myself would go over with Prof. Rohl to shop, visit or run quick errands like grocery shopping or money exchange. During my many visits, I have become more acquainted with the city centre: how to drive through it, walk through the streets, encountering people, and experiencing the differences between life in and out of the Ramadan fasting season. In this post, most examples will derive from Mafraq and its surrounding towns and villages, while on occasion I will mention examples from other parts of Jordan.
My first visit to Mafraq was mostly for getting SIM cards for a couple of fellow students. Walking around the city (really more like a town in size but with the terrible traffic and bustling streets of a city) we saw a great variety of shops: they had restaurants closed for Ramadan, clothing and textile stores, watch stores, fruit stalls and phone stores, vendors open to the streets selling from stalls anything from jewelry to kitchenware. Almost every store was open to the street. I knew that Jordan and Arab culture generally featured this, but I felt amazed by the streets and the openness of businesses. Sidewalks were lifted higher over the streets than any place I’d seen before and their height ranged from a stair step to over-my-knee when I crossed the street and so walking on the street was a common occurrence. Crossing the street also involved negotiating between other pedestrians and also the constant stream of cars. If one stopped as you crossed, at least one, often most, of the drivers behind would honk. This was unlike anything I had experienced before and often I was worried that the car (often they would keep coming) would hit me or another student. Pedestrians on the street and sidewalks bustle in every direction, into stores and shade before running off to another place. In many ways, Mafraq’s streets vaguely look like an ant colony. Jordanians fearlessly walk across roads despite oncoming traffic.
One aspect of Mafraq, and the rest of Jordan, which I could not ignore, and the only thing I found truly disappointing, was the amount of litter. Jordanian culture views pollution as neither positive or negative. It simply is the way they dispose of trash when a trashcan is unavailable. Along the sides of the streets and on the sidewalks of Mafraq a pile of litter would grow at almost every corner. If collected, the way to dispose of the trash would be burning. On journeys outside of Mafraq, even the sides of highways and roads would collect full trash bags and an amalgamation of little, ruining what otherwise was a beautiful view of Jordan’s hills, mountains, and deserts.
A more amusing aspect of Jordanian businesses are the translations into English of business names or purposes. While many would have perfectly normal English names, others would simply have ‘coffee shop’ or more specifically near Mafraq ‘cofee shop’ as a name. Stores most often only had the Arabic, however, some stores, especially ‘supermarkets’ (these are often much smaller than anything an American or Brit could call a supermarket), attempted English, usually fine but with exceptions like a ‘Sopermarket’ near Petra, or with business titles that are amusing to native English speakers like the ‘Ladies’ Gym for Women’ or the ‘Special Person’ store, both encountered outside of Mafraq. Inside an actually Jordanian supermarket called ‘Safeway’ in Mafraq, English versions of aisle signs included ‘baby dippers’ and ‘shose polish’ among other things.
Another thing I enjoyed about Safeway was that British chocolate was available and cheap, especially compared to the US. Growing up in the UK meant that my own English was closer to that of many more fluent English-speakers here due to the cultural influence from British colonialism, a fresh reminder of a place I can home, while simultaneously having a truly unique and new experience. Having a Galaxy chocolate bar again was a nostalgic experience, but the searing heat (around 90-100 F) kept my mind firmly in Jordan. Safeway also provided an opportunity to try new foods and drinks and discover new brands. One brand that I and many of the leaders enjoyed was a soda called ‘G’. It came in multiple flavors, such as cranberry or grenadine, and is something I will miss if I can’t find it back home in the US.
Specific encounters one may expect with Jordanians in towns and cities can vary greatly. For the most part, most would just get on with their business and walk right past us, but many Jordanians would wave or say ‘hello’ or try to have a quick conversation with us in limited English, one girl, in another city called Madaba, said to a few of us as we walked past ‘Hello! I am happy!’ Some people even honked as they saw us. Many would seek money, such as an old man our professor shook hands with in Mafraq, expecting to get paid for the handshake. Hospitality is very important as well, shopkeepers treat their potential customers very well, answering questions and asking where we were from. At a keffiyeh shop in Mafraq, after I bought a couple for myself, the shopkeeper did-up a traditional Jordanian keffiyeh for me to wear over my head for the rest of the trip there. Another shopkeeper, this time in Petra, welcomed a group of us with tea and in traditional bedouin-style did-up scarves for the girls, having a fun conversation with us. This all was also reflected in our co-workers in the dig. Ali, the foreman, would try to talk to me about different things, such as my family (my father being on the directors for the excavations and my brother being there too) and the pottery you can find all over the surface in Umm el-Jimal. Mana’a and Mohamed, my co-workers, tried teaching me Arabic, and later I played in a football (soccer for Americans) game against Mohamed.
Overall, the community, whether in Umm el-Jimal or Mafraq, often tried to make the team feel welcome.