Adventures with Zuhair

Arab hospitality is legendary. Sixteen hours after leaving Boston, I emerged from Jordanian customs into the arrivals hall at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. I was met by the hotel’s driver, Zuhair, an energetic middle-aged man with a huge smile on his face. “Welcome to Jordan!” he said as he grasped my hand. “Shukran,” I replied. “Ana ismee Andrew,” I ventured in my limited Arabic. (“Thank you. My name is Andrew.”) I knew that by saying this I would be subjected to a barrage of questions in Arabic, and sure enough I was. I smiled meekly in response and told Zuhair that I didn’t understand. “No problem, my friend. No problem.” He grabbed my carry-on and led me through the parking lot to his 1990-something Nissan and off we went to the Burj al-Arab Hotel.

Two things always strike me when I travel to non-Western countries: 1) the huge amounts of construction projects that are either half-finished or abandoned and 2) the driving. As we left the airport, the highway was lined with beautiful new homes that seemed eerily empty. Other than the houses themselves, there was nothing else on the lots–no driveways, no cars, absolutely no sign of the properties actually being inhabited. It was as if someone just airlifted these houses and dropped them in patches of scrub and brush along the road. About half were completely finished. The rest were just abandoned foundations or skeletons of buildings… as if the crews just got bored and moved on.

Zuhair had two cell phones. As we were driving, he was talking on one and putting a phone number into the other. I’m sure this did not diminish his capacity to drive. Even after he put down the phones, he continued to drift in and out of the lanes. But so did everyone else. Everyone, it seemed, drove on top of the white lines instead of in between them. Part of the drive was stop-and-go, meaning you gun it as soon as other cars start moving and slam on the brakes when you need to stop. If it looked as though we were going to rear end the people in front, Zuhair would simply swerve into another lane, cutting off whichever poor soul was unfortunate enough to be in the other lane at that time.

Yes, there were a few close calls, but this is just how it’s done. (I can only imagine how the tourist family I saw at the airport car rental counter is faring on these roads… I wish them luck.)

Zuhair and I made our way into the capital, passing camels, shepherds (some just young boys) with sheep and goats grazing in the shadow of the skeleton houses. Fruit (primarily banana) vendors lined the highway, setting up shop next to groves of olive trees. Conspicuously absent during our drive were portraits of King Abdullah II and Queen Noor (who was actually born in Washington, DC). Kingdoms are kingdoms for a reason–in Morocco, the first things you notice on drive from the airport into Marrakesh are HUGE portraits of King Mohammed VI. Just in case you forgot where you were or on whose land you were actually staying…

The first thing I asked Zuhair at the airport was if he knew of Cafeteria Reem. “Shawarma!” he cried. “Yes, yes, I know it!” (I read about this place in a 2008 NY Times article that came up as I was planning this trip. They serve only one thing: shawarma. Lamb, onions, tomatoes, and tahini wrapped in pita. It does not get much better than that!)

I asked if Cafeteria Reem was close to the hotel or if he could get me a taxi there. I HAD to go. Zuhair generously offered to take me there before going to the hotel. It was out of the way, but “No problem, my friend. No problem.” We approached Reem–really just a food stall on the side of the road, but very famous–and Zuhair pulled over on the opposite side of the street. I got out, played Frogger trying to cross four lanes of traffic, and walked up to the window. There I was… finally! The red sign above the storefront was better than any golden arches I’ve seen.

Since they only serve one thing, ordering was easy. You just tell them how many you want. I forgot the word for “two,” so I said, “one and one.” (I was ordering for Zuhair as a small gesture for his taking me out of the way.)

The total came to 1.50 Jordanian dinars, or a little less than $2. When my order number was called–I really need to get then numbers figured out–another shawarma patron who was incredibly helpful and friendly, looked at me and asked me if I was number 58. We started talking, but I didn’t want to keep Zuhair waiting. As I left, he said, “Welcome to my country! I hope you like Jordan!”

I crossed through traffic again, two shawarmas in hand. Zuhair and I ate our shawarma together in the car on the way to the hotel. It was everything I thought it would be and more!

All of my interactions so far have been very positive. I feel welcome in Jordan–it must be that Arab hospitality. A great start to my adventure!

Here’s a shot of me on the hotel’s roof deck with a mosque in the background. I know I’m going to be woken up at 4 am by the call to prayer, but that’s part of the enchantment of the Middle East.

Peace and love wherever you are.

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