The Staff of Life

By Stanley A Stalla | Dec 19, 2015

Amman — The Staff of Life

Full circle.  After more than thirty years, I’m back where I / we started:  Amman, Jordan.  Early in 1980, a little family of three arrived at Queen Alia Airport after a long flight from Washington, DC.  We were met at the airport by an embassy car and driver and taken to a villa a few hundred yards from Sixth Circle – one of eight circles, or roundabouts, that formed the backbone of Jebel Amman.  That villa was to be home for us for the next five years.  Its walls absorbed lots of memories over those years.  Memories of sheep and goats grazing in the vacant lot across the street, guarded by shepherds in traditional Arab headdress (called qafiyeh).  Of the calls to prayer from mosques in our neighborhood.  Of strawberries growing behind our house and one large, rosy tomato that was pinched by a laborer a day before I had planned to pick it.  Of hundreds of colorful African violet plants growing in our verandah – our family’s calling card when invited to dinner.  Of Heidi going to the British International School and of Zeid joining our family half-way through our posting.  Of “camping” on our flat roof some nights during a summer –time Ramadan, to listen to the drummer walking the neighborhood streets, waking people for the pre-dawn prayer.  So many memories.

One of my favorites was an occasional hike to a small, hole-in-the-wall bakery a block or so from our house.  Literally a small space wedged between houses, with room enough for a traditional bread oven, rows of hand-shaped dough on wooden slats, and the two or three (probably Egyptian) workers whose choreography included shaping the dough, transferring it onto wooden paddles with long handles to thrust into the red hot oven, then a minute or so later removing the round balloons of fresh bread and sliding them onto other trays.   Flour everywhere, covering the dark skin of the bakers and the stacks of trays and the floor of mud and stones.  Standing in line with other customers, we would listen to the Arabic banter and watch our neighbors hold out flat newspaper sheets to catch these oven-hot balloons as they were swooped from the oven.  Ooooo, ouch, whew, whoa…. Those ten or fifteen loaves of fresh bread out of the oven were HOT.  But also delicious, especially eaten within an hour or so.  Sometimes, for a treat, we’d pay an extra ten cents or so to have a mena’eesh b’ zatar (a flat bread smeared with olive oil and herbs), or a mena’eesh bil baid – the egg equivalent.  I think of them as Arab pizzas, and my mouth waters as I type this.

Thirty years later, much has changed.  I had no illusion that I might yet find that hole-in-the-wall neighborhood bakery.  No sir, where there were simple roundabouts there are now overpasses and underpasses.  One-story houses with grape arbors demarcating property lines have become multi-story commercial buildings with elevators and underground parking lots.  But I did want to see the old neighborhood at Sixth Circle.   So yesterday, I took a stroll along Jebel Amman.  I was curious to see our old house and maybe even to knock on our neighbors’ door – one of thousands of Jordanian families who had been displaced from their roots in Palestine more than a half century ago, making a new life on the east side of the Jordan River.  Yes, the Said Family was one of those important, old memories.  Helmi calling down to us every day when we exited our kitchen door, asking after our health, making a joke in Arabic and laughing even as I was trying to figure out what he had said.

After 45 minutes, I came upon the little store (Sweet Supermarket) where we had sometimes bought candy and yoghurt and fresh produce.  It was all boarded up, but the same small road to the right brought me to the street where we had lived.  No more vacant lot.  Where goats and sheep had grazed, there was a 13-story building with underground parking.  Our one-story villa with its flat roof had been expanded vertically and horizontally, and signs in Arabic on the wall in front of the house reminded people  Mawqaf Mamnua – no parking.  The Saids’ two-story building had been razed and was now a black-topped parking lot for a commercial building.  Yes indeed, much has changed.

But some things have not.  I can still buy roast chicken in my new neighborhood, and it comes with stacks of khubs arabi – flat Arab bread like I used to buy near Sixth Circle.  My hotel breakfast buffet these days includes that bread, along with bowls of hummus, mutabel,  babaganoush, fuul (broad beans), and white cheese.  The pre-dawn prayer awakens me in a gentle way, much as it did in the early 1980s.  The next generation of drivers of yellow taxis still calls me Habibi – my dear fellow – and engages me in friendly conversation as we go around town.

Three decades ago, we occasionally drove the three hours to Damascus, to shop in the bazaar and eat in one of the famous French restaurants.  It was a treat to go to the big city, and – like the Jordanians – the Syrians were friendly and courteous and happy to have us amongst them.  Of course, these days, there’s no question of a drive to Damascus.  The other day, though, I had the chance to drive to the border.  I went to observe the logistics operations of one of the humanitarian operations funded by our government:  flour to Syrian bakeries.  Without this assistance, many besieged and beleaguered people these days would be unable to have the most basic of needs – the bread they use to dip into hummus and fuul.  Their daily bread.  The staff of life.

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