Your Burning Questions, Answered

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and people found out I was from Oakland, they would invariably say something ridiculous like, “Wow, Oakland huh? Did you carry a gun?”

And, of course, I would tell them the truth. “Hell yes, I carried a gun.”

Okay, no I didn’t. Carry a gun. And most of the people I knew in Oakland didn’t carry guns either. Non-Oaklanders often assumed Oakland was this really dangerous place because of stories they read in the news. And while Oakland had (and still has) its share of drive-by shootings and gang violence (among other crimes), it was a pretty nice place to grow up.

In fact, Montclair, the Oakland neighborhood in which I was raised, is one of the wealthiest communities in California. It’s very pretty, with huge homes, fancy cars and million-dollar views of San Francisco. I went to a private school, had nannies and ballet lessons. It was far from rough.

I bring this up because, much like Oakland, there are a lot of misconceptions about Jordan that I’d like to clear up. I’ve been asked by friends, family and even strangers back in States a lot of questions about life here; questions that indicate a fair amount of ignorance about this place.

Additionally, I’d like to open the floor to any further questions you may have about Jordan (or, at least Aqaba).  Please feel free to email me or post your questions in the comment section below. I’ll do my best to answer each and every one.

Please bear in mind though that I’m no expert. My answers are based on some research but mostly on my own experiences (and Bret’s too) thus far.

In no particular order:

1) Do you have to cover your hair?

No. Most of the time, I wear my hair in a scraggly ponytail so maybe I should cover it. It’s only muslim women who wear hijab (headscarf) or chador (long robe), although some muslim women do not observe this practice. Non-muslim women are not expected to cover their hair in Jordan. Some middle eastern countries require all women (including tourists and non-muslims) to cover their hair in public; Saudi Arabia for example.

2) Can you drive a car alone in Jordan?

Yes I can (and often do) drive by myself here in Aqaba. I’m free to do so in the rest of the country as well. I’m not required to travel with a male companion or even a female companion for that matter. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that Aqabawis are shitty drivers.

3) What kind of animal do you ride when you’re in town? 

A Peugot, which is a french import. It’s also a car. And its horn sounds like a clown fart (thank you, Bret). In other words, we don’t ride animals at all. There are a few horses and camels in town that tourists can ride for novelty’s sake, but people here drive cars: Toyotas, Hondas, Chevys, Peugots, Mercedes, BMWs, etc. In that regard, Aqaba looks like any other city. Also, the roads are paved with actual asphalt. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that Aqabawis are shitty drivers.

4) Do people speak English?

Yes, many of them do. In Amman, many Jordanians (mostly teenagers and young adults) don’t even have an accent when they speak English. And the Jordanians who don’t speak English fluently at least know a few words.

5) Do Jordanians hate Americans?

No. Some Jordanians may disagree with US foreign policy, but this doesn’t mean they hate American citizens. It’s likely that some Jordanians have misconceptions about American people but then, plenty of Americans have misconceptions about Jordanians too. In fact, many Americans don’t even know where Jordan is.

6) Is everyone muslim in Jordan?

No. Jordan is a muslim country but there are many Christians here and even a smattering of Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Catholics and Hindus. There are churches in Jordan (as well as many many mosques) and there’s even a Catholic school in Aqaba run by a group of nuns.

7) Can you find pork products or alcohol in Jordan?

Yes, you can find both. Although pork and alcohol are traditionally forbidden in Islam, it’s perfectly legal in Jordan to consume either one. There’s even a liquor store in Tala Bay and a pork store in Amman. That’s right. An entire store devoted to pork. In Aqaba, we buy ham and bacon at a local grocery store called Muhannad. Think about it this way, pre-marital sex is forbidden in Christianity but does that mean all Christians wait until after marriage?

8) Is the internet censored in Jordan?

Ummmm….I’d rather not say.

9) Are you able to find “normal” foods/products in Jordan?

I guess that depends on your definition of normal. My answer to that is, yes. Some of the “normal” food products I’ve found here:

Healthy Stuff (stuff that I eat): fresh broccoli and spinach, whole wheat pasta, fresh strawberries, sweet potatoes, organic milk, whole grain bread, Greek feta cheese, dried cranberries, organic quinoa, black beans, pinto beans, organic low-sodium chicken broth, brown rice, Swiss dark chocolate, Perrier, flax meal, oats, natural peanut butter, Rice Krispies, raw almonds, ricotta cheese.

Not-So Healthy-Stuff (stuff that Bret eats): Pop Tarts, Oreos, Bugles, Cheetos (although they taste like Doritos, which is odd), all kinds of Haribo brand gummy candies, marshmallows (Campfire brand made with fish gelatin!), Pringles, Snickers (I eat these too, on occasion), Ritz crackers, Cheez-Its, Skippy-style peanut butter.

The produce market is pretty well-stocked with seasonal fruits and vegetables. Seasonal means you won’t find sweet potatoes in July, but when they arrive in early October they’re wonderfully sweet. Right now, pomegranates are in season and they’re delicious. Bright red with the juiciest seeds. I eat them plain or mix them into yogurt or sprinkle them on salads, in case anyone’s interested. Poms are a superfood, apparently. This means they wear a cape.

While the traditional middle eastern food here is quite good, there are other kinds of cuisine here as well: Italian, Chinese, Lebanese, seafood, burgers, etc. There’s also a Burger King, Popeye’s Chicken, KFC, Pizza Hut and Gloria Jean’s coffee. But no drive-throughs.

As far as household products, the locals seem to really dig heavily-perfume soaps and aftershave (the muskier, the better). Fortunately they do have a few fragrance-free items. I’ve been able to find natural olive oil soap, fragrance-free laundry detergent and unscented baby wipes.

10) Do people really pray five times a day? 

Some muslims do, yes. Just like some Christians go to church a few times a week, some muslims pray five times a day in Jordan. Call to Prayer sounds five times each day (here’s a link if you want to hear it: http://gallery.me.com/bret.scott#100393) reminding muslims to face east and pray. People are free to pray, or not. . By the way, that video was shot from Bret’s office at RSICA.

11) Do women cover their entire bodies and faces in public? 

Yes, some women do. I don’t see many of them though. Most of the muslim women wear a headscarf and others wear chador (long black robe) but keep their faces uncovered. A few women cover their mouths and even fewer cover their eyes as well. How can they see, you ask? Well, the cover over their eyes is a gauzy fabric they can see through. I’m not sure how well they can see through it though as I’ve never worn it myself.

12) Do you feel safe?

I feel as safe here as I did back in Pasadena. The only time I don’t feel especially safe in Aqaba is when we’re driving on the highway between Tala Bay and town. And that’s because it’s typical to see some asshole doing something stupid like stopping in the middle of the highway and backing up. This happens all the time. That and people driving on the wrong side of the road. The drivers here are fucking insane. It’s something of an epidemic really. But in a nutshell, yes, I feel safe here. I don’t worry about terrorism, if that’s what you mean.

13) Is polygamy (multiple spouses) legal in Jordan?

Yes, it is. But according to Jordan’s constitution, the man has to treat all co-wives equitably and provide them with separate dwellings.  As this gets expensive and no doubt, exhausting, most men don’t have more than one wife here. Bret met a bus driver who claimed to have a wife in Aqaba and another in Amman but  that the two women were unaware of each other. I think that’s shitty. I don’t care if someone wants to be polyamorous but I think all parties should be in on it.

14) Are there terrorists and exploding bombs all around you?

Um, no. While there have been terrorist attacks in Jordan (one of them was in Aqaba in 2010 which unfortunately left one Jordanian man dead), they are not a daily occurrence. Furthermore, life is pretty normal here. People get up, eat breakfast, go to work or school, eat lunch, go to the gym, check their e-mail, hang out with friends, pay the bills, go to the doctor, visit with family, give birth, get sick, fall in love, and die just like they do everywhere else in the world. Aside from the crazy drivers, it really is a peaceful little town.

So there you have it. I hope this post cleared up any confusion you had about Jordan (or at least, Aqaba). If you have other questions/comments, feel free to post them below. I’m happy to oblige.

Until then, ma’a s salama!

Umm Abby

In the Land of Milk and Blood Tests

“We need to go to the government clinic tomorrow to get your HIV test.”

I looked up from my laptop. Say what?

“For your residency card. They won’t issue one without an HIV test. And a chest X-ray.”

Bret didn’t even look up from his own laptop while he informed me of this.

I groaned.

“It won’t take long,” he assured me. “And it won’t hurt.”

“I’m not worried about it hurting!” I snapped.

And I wasn’t. I don’t mind needles. I’m one of those weirdos who watches the needle poke through my skin and the blood pour into the vial. It’s not that I necessarily dig it. It’s just that it’s interesting to see my own blood. So, yeah, I guess I kinda dig it.

And I certainly wasn’t worried about getting positive results. I’m not exactly high-risk. Plus, I had an HIV test last year and it came back negative. Since I haven’t shot up any heroin lately nor do Bret and I have an open marriage, I figure my HIV results are more than likely status quo.

I groaned because I’m lazy and I don’t like dealing with bureaucracy. I hate the DMV. I thoroughly dislike the post office and filing my taxes. I would even break out in a cold sweat anytime I had to venture into the registrar’s office in college. I have an aversion to paperwork and government issued things. Bureaucracy is always so slow and lumpy and devoid of life. Like a bowl of cold, gray oatmeal.

To make matters worse, Jordan (as a country) is often a little disorganized about these sorts of things.  I’m not sure if it’s because they never sat down to write an official handbook, or they did but no one actually read it. But it seems like in Jordan, there’s a lot of confusion about rules and regulations. Did I say confusion? I meant blatant disregard.

From what I surmise, people make up their own rules here. Especially on the road. Oh my god. The stuff I’ve seen people do on the road here is totally certifiable. On the way into town yesterday, we came upon a group of idiots standing in the middle of the desert highway taking pictures of the ocean. That’s right. They were hanging out in the center of the road snapping pictures. Just standing there, totally oblivious that they were on a HIGHWAY! We narrowly missed them in the Peugot. And they actually looked shocked and irritated to see our car, like we were in their way. Oh sorry, guys, did we screw up your crappy snapshot of the glaring sun? Our bad.

But back to the blood test.

I knew about the HIV test already because Bret had had his blood test about a month ago. One of the administrators at RSICA took him and three of his colleagues to the government clinic.

The HIV test is a requirement to acquire a residency card in Aqaba. A residency card is exactly as it sounds. It’s a card that foreigners (like us) get while we’re living and working in Jordan. It proves that we’re not just loitering but that we actually live here. Residency cards also qualify us to receive discounts on things like entrance fees to Petra. Normally, it costs 40 JD (or, $56) for tourists to tour the ruins, but for residents it only costs 1 JD (or, $1.40). It’s like a driver’s license and KCRW fringe benefits card rolled into one.

“Can’t they just assume that because you don’t have AIDS, I don’t either?” I asked in all seriousness. I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if that were actually permissible here because women are often viewed as extensions of their husbands. Perhaps more in Saudi Arabia or the UAE than in Jordan, but still.

Alas, I had to get my own blood test.

So, the following morning, the Scott family took a little field trip down to the Center for Chest Diseases and Foreign Health. I’m not sure how chest diseases and foreign health got lumped together. It’s not exactly an intuitive pairing. Furthermore, are there really that many diseases of the chest that they require an entire building? Even half a building? Maybe they should open a few smoking cessation buildings in this town. Just a thought.

The Center for Chest Diseases and Foreign Health was hopping when we arrived at 8 a.m. I didn’t think the locals got out of bed before noon, so I was surprised to see so many people. Not surprisingly, most of them were smoking. Good thing they were right there at the Center for Chest Diseases!

The building itself was this crumbling, stucco gulag with a chaotic parking lot. It looked more like event parking in a seedy section of downtown Los Angeles than a medical building. We found a narrow spot to cram the Peugot.

Once inside, we made our way to the second floor. Thankfully, Bret had been there before so he knew where to go. I was still half-asleep as I hadn’t had my coffee yet. I was just following Bret around with a glazed expression. I was hoping this “neutral” face would mask my piss poor attitude. I really didn’t want to be there.

Bret led me to a cashier’s window not unlike the ones at the DMV. This was Window 1. An older Arabic lady wearing hijab was stationed behind the glass. She didn’t even look up at us, and she was talking but it was unclear to whom.

Bret patted my shoulder and announced, “My wife needs a blood test and chest x-ray.” I looked around the room. The place was swarming with Arabs. Many of them leered at us, which did nothing to improve my mood.

Cashier Lady gave me a cursory glance.

I offered her a half-hearted grimace. I didn’t mean to. I meant to smile, but for some reason all I could muster was a grimace. I really need coffee in the morning.

At Window 1, we paid the 30-dinar fee for the two tests. Then, Cashier Lady (who was still talking and it was still unclear to whom) gave us a piece of paper with Arabic writing all over it. Neither Bret nor I were sure what this paper said. It could’ve said anything. Perhaps something official or perhaps it read, “Take more money from these jackasses.”

We took this piece of paper to Table 1.5. Not even a window, just a guy sitting at a folding card table.

We were instructed to give him a quarter dinar and he handed us what appeared to be a postage stamp. No explanation. Just take the stamp and move along. I was hoping the stamp was for some sort of raffle. Bret told me that was unlikely. Oh, Bret. Where’s your sense of whimsy?

I think someone (Bret maybe?) affixed the postage stamp/raffle ticket to the piece of paper with Arabic writing and we were off to Door Number 2. Without actually looking at the paper, the guy at Door Number 2 took it out of my hands and handed it to a lady wearing rubber gloves at Door Number 3.

I was ushered through Door Number 3 and told to sit at what appeared to be a school desk from the 1950’s. It was one of those desks with the metal chair attached. I placed my arm on the desk and rolled up my sleeve. Miss Rubber Gloves told me to make a fist. Then without even swabbing the area with alcohol, she stuck the needle into my vein. She drew some blood and then handed me a piece of cotton she’d pulled from a giant ball of cotton next to her. She didn’t offer a Band-aid or even a piece of tape to keep the cotton in place. It kept slipping down my arm and I got blood on my shirt.

From there, I was hustled down to Door Number 6. Not sure why we skipped Doors 4 and 5.

At Door Number 6, I was summoned into a room by a young woman who turned out to be the x-ray technician. She looked more like a web designer. All black clothes and hipster glasses.  She told me to stand in front of the giant machine. I complied. Then, she stood next to me for a moment. “Pregnant?” she asked. I didn’t know what to say. As far as I knew I wasn’t pregnant, but what if I was? I’m not on the pill and well….you get the picture.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’m pregnant,” I said.  The technician paused for a moment and then shrugged. “Okay,” she said and stepped out of the room.

“Finished!” I heard her shout seconds later.

All rightey then.

After the chest x-ray we wandered around in the hallway until a small, but surprisingly stern Arabic woman looked at us and said, “Halas!” This means “enough” in Arabic. Basically, she was telling us to get the hell out of her building. She had chest diseases to attend to.

So, we left. Turns out there was no raffle.

My results were ready for pickup a few days later. We returned to the Center for Chest Diseases and Foreign Health. The parking lot was a zoo, so I stayed in the car while Bret went inside the building.  He returned all of two minutes later clutching a piece of paper. I was eager to see the results. Do I have tuberculosis?!

He slipped the paper into his messenger bag and hopped into the driver’s seat.

“Well?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” Bret said, buckling his seat belt.

“What do you mean you don’t know,” I said, a little unnerved.

“I mean I don’t know,” he said, “It’s all in Arabic.”