Passports

Dispatches from Abroad

Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010 12:53 a.m.

Updates from Elise, studying in Amman

Photo courtesy of Elise Chen.

The second rule of studying abroad in Jordan: make time. We are constantly reminded that there is Western time and then there is AST—Arab Standard Time. AST is at least one time zone behind the nominal Jordanian GMT +3:00.

It’s connected with the concept of hierarchy and assigned functions. For example, you go into Hashem’s, a famous hole-in-the-wall falafel place downtown. The king has been there, it’s in every guidebook to Jordan, and you sit on plastic lawn chairs and eat off of paper placemats. You go inside and sit down anywhere. There are six or seven men who are working. Wait about 15 minutes for them to notice you. Bring a friend, or you’ll get bored quickly. Eventually someone comes along. He’ll ask you what you want, but this is just a formality, because Hashem’s really only has hummus, falafel, fuul, mashed pinto beans with lemon and oil, babaghanoush, and bread. You order, or really just say “Okay, yes please,” and he walks away.

Twenty minutes or so pass. You get thirsty. A runner has brought your food and melted away before you could ask him for a drink. Your waiter is nowhere to be seen. There’s another guy roaming around the restaurant who works there. He’s not doing anything, so surely he can get you a drink. The fridge is just over there, but it would be rude if you got it yourself. He walks by your table, so you ask him if you could have a soda please, in Arabic. He asks you what kind you want and then says sure, mish mushkeleh, or no problem. Success! You have managed to quench your thirst.

Not so fast, chief. The person you ordered the drink from disappears for a few minutes, then comes back and ambles around the restaurant some more. This time he is clearly avoiding your table. You’re still thirsty! After what seems like an extended smoke break, your waiter returns. You ask for a soda and it appears on your table like a gift from the Pepsi Co. gods. What did you do wrong the first time? You ordered from the wrong guy. That guy’s job is serving hot tea. Even when everyone who wants tea has it, he can’t do anything else, so he just wanders around the restaurant. You have to order from the guy whose job it is to take orders.

It could have been worse, though. I saw one hapless tourist ask for more hummus from the guy who goes around serving falafels from a giant bowl. Wrong move. The falafel guy gave him a look that said all too clearly, “What is wrong with you? I’m obviously the falafel guy. Go ask someone who can deal with you and your empty hummus dish.” This eloquent expression was followed by the merest flick of the eye toward the man who is apparently responsible for hummus. Such gestures, I have learned, are the equivalent of pointing at the man and saying very clearly, “That is the person for whom you are searching, my good sir.”

These entrenched roles result in a peculiar slowing of time that’s either charming or incredibly frustrating, depending on the circumstance and your mood. When you’re grabbing a coffee five minutes before class and the coffee guy can’t give you change because the money guy is chatting with the cell phone retailer next door, it’s irritating. Time slows to a crawl while you stare balefully at the coffee guy, who gives you a Kanye shrug and goes back to brewing.

When you’re spending a pleasant evening munching falafels, though, it’s actually relaxing when it takes ten minutes to pay the bill because the one guy who can take your money is on his cell phone. You sip the rest of your tea, take leisurely nibbles of your khubez (bread) and hummus, and watch the other restaurant-goers. Enjoy being full of some of the best falafel in Jordan. Take some time. Mish mushkeleh.