The Best Souvenirs

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Jordan  ,
Friday, March 18, 2005

Without interactions with the locals a trip is little more than a Baedecker checklist tattered with ticks. With conversations and shared laughter however it flowers into a journey where the real souvenirs gather no dust.

My drafty hotel room and the late night chill were forcing me into buying a warm local costume. My first stop was to buy one of the famous red and white checkered kayfiehs not only to warm up but also as a souvenir. My modus operandi throughout this trip has been to buy an article of clothing everywhere I go and work it subtly into my wardrobe. Less than 24 hours after landing in the Middle East I smirked at myself in the mirror, "Well that didn't take long now did it?" I wasn't sated. As it was only warming my neck and knowing the temperatures after sunset would plummet I still needed something warmer and thought, Why not go over the edge here and buy an embroidered caftan? I did my research and looked around at one that I'd seen in several stores covered in embroidery in shades of fuchsias, reds and pinks and thought it more Dorris Duke or Verushka than Maude. I had to have it and for over an hour finding the right price became my raison d'etre. The same one began at 50 dinars at one store, another quoted me 40 then yet another man told me 35 so I took his card promising to return and went visiting some Roman ruins and a mosque. I found nothing cheaper so I returned to his shop and was looking around but he wasn't there. I asked the price and was quoted 45 so I reached for their card in my purse and holding it up bluffing I said, "No, I wrote down 25. How about 25?" An elderly man entered and they had a fast and furious verbal exchange and then she turned to me and said, "You can have it for what I would pay: 25." She made me try it on and ooh'd and aah'd showing me how to tie a scarf on my head and showing me how she tied her hijab, as well. We sat down and she whipped out a family photo album from her purse and I was surprised to see that women in hijab do not wear them for professional photos and there was even one of her children dressed in Halloween costumes. She was just apologizing for not being able to invite me to her home for dinner when the first man to whom I spoke returned. He greeted me and seeing my shopping bag turned with a happy lilt in his voice to the lady. Immediately an aural slugfest ensued and then she patted me on the arm and walked me out of the store. I apologized and was reaching for my wallet to pay more but she was laughing and said, " No, no it is the fair price, it's the Jordanian price not the tourist price." I told her that I didn't want to get her in trouble and would happy to pay an extra five. She was shaking her head and smiling from ear to ear, "Oh no, don't worry he is mad because I told him that you're a very smart lady - smarter than him!"

On my last day in Amman I was looking for a Jordan sticker for my suitcase when I stumbled into a little store down a narrow street. He had it all: King Hussein key chains, Jordanian police and military patches for sweaters, fantastic metal pins bearing the royal Hashemite seal and best of all it was all official merchandise as was evident by the policemen who frequented the store. I love this sort of thing -- not the souvenirs that you can get from any tourist shop but the real thing worn by the locals and the armed forces at that. I settled in and was studying all the trinkets and exotic emblems like an archeologist gently brushing off the dust of a newfound treasure and staring in awe. There were photos everywhere of late King Hussein and the current monarch his son, King Abdullah II. For the past few days I'd asked several locals what they thought of their new king who's without a doubt an extremely tough act to follow after the long reign of his internationally revered and beloved father. The man in the shop squinted suspiciously and cocked his head and repeated my query. He added, "There is something in your face that makes me think of Queen Noor -are you related to her? Why do you ask this question?" I was as flattered as I was flabbergasted. I explained my interest in politics and my admiration for the former king who was one of America's staunchest Middle Eastern allies. I went on to tell him that an old friend of mine from Atlanta once met him on the beach in Aqaba many years ago when she was dating a Jordanian correspondent from CNN.

He let his guard down and we discussed everything from politics to religion. Looking up at a photo of King Hussein there was a slight tremble in voice, "I loved the king very, very much he was like our father." As an informed American with definite and firm ideas about world politics I was thrilled to kindly joust with a Middle Easterner. I was so interested to know his views on various subjects from what it's like for him being a Christian in a Muslim country to how minorities are accepted in Jordan to various ancient tourist sites and even his favourite local foods. I was quite surprised if not taken aback by some his observations and opinions. He likes George W. Bush and admires what his administration is doing in Iraq. He is certainly in the minority in this part of the world and would also be in my neighborhood in New York -- not to mention my living room. He also respected Saddam Hussein for his leadership skills however and greatly admires Castro. To say that my new friend was magnanimous and not one to shore up to one side or another would be the understatement of this journal. I tried to understand how someone could respect and even admire both sides of a hearted duel and while I disagreed with most of what he said I loved the debate. For over four hours we sat opposite his desk and sparred respectfully while washing down cakes with small glasses of thick coffee.

As the sun was starting to set I begged off, explaining that I still had a few sites to see before heading south in the morning. Knowing that I'd get a fair price I didn't dare to bargain or even ask prices for the patches, stickers and key chain and gathered them up in a little pile. He tallied them up and I brought out my wallet. From under his desk he took out a silver-colored pin and extended it toward me, "Because you so admired him this is for you in the memory of the great King Hussein. He loved everyone and respected all people and I want you to have it in his honour." I was overwhelmed and refused but he insisted. After batting back and forth I accepted what is without a doubt my new prized possession for many reasons and will wear it proudly. He then pushed the bag of souvenirs my direction and said, "These, too. Welcome to Jordan."

I left his store in a daze, drained by the hospitality, warmth and generosity. I went to a shop and bought him an icon and went back to my hotel. I wrapped it up and wrote him a letter and asked the hotel clerk to have it delivered once I'd left in the morning. He smiled and said, "He must've been very nice to you for you to give him a gift." I assured him that it wasn't like that but that I was impressed by all of the Jordanian hospitality I'd experienced but his was something exceptional.

The next day I left Amman in the early morning for one of the ancient wonders of the world, Petra. Looking out at the waking capital slipping past we drove by the street where the shop stands. I rolled down the window and rested my elbow on the edge, squinting to see the shuttered door and felt the cold air rush in. A static cacophony spiraled on the radio and I smiled, sighed and said goodbye to Amman and Abdullah.

Onward to Jordan's other great wonder.
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