I breezed through Queen Alia International airport. The immigration officer had taken a quick look at my passport, stamped it firmly, and handed it back with a smile. Welcome to Jordan sir. It was exciting – my first visit to a Muslim-majority country outside Pakistan.
Moving quickly through the compact airport, I stepped outside. It was 2 AM, but Muhammad was on time, pacing around with a plaque that had my name on it. I walked up to him and said Ahlan. “Mr. Arsalan!” he said, jumping with excitement. “Welcome, welcome!” Bags were put into the trunk, and off we went.
Muhammad was a great guide, and we immediately began talking about politics and the Jordanian economy. He was very happy to know that it was my first visit, and proceeded to tell me about Jordan’s history, as well as about the structure of Amman (which is built around a system of eight circles, or dawwars), as we made the forty-five minute drive to the city.
As we talked, Muhammad suddenly asked: “Do you like music, Mr. Arsalan?” “Of course,” came the response, in my survival Arabic, which was functioning surprisingly well. I took the names of a few Arabic musicians I knew of, he picked up on Oumm Kalthoum. “Ahhh, Oum Kalthoum, let me play some for you.” He fiddled with the radio knobs till he found a channel playing Oum Kalthoum, who is a legendary Egyptian singer known for her lengthy numbers. Some of them can last several hours.
Muhammad switched to talking about his life and family, and I rolled the window down to take in the cool air outside. We were passing through what seemed like open fields on each side. The road was completely empty, save a few cars every now and then. The only other evidence of life were lights from homes in the distance, and these interesting, box-like structures just by the roadside. Most of them had nothing written on them, but instead a single flashing neon sign, in the shape of an elongated qahva flask. I was intrigued, and asked Muhammad what they were.
“Ah, cappuccino Mr. Arsalan, they are cappuccino!” So apparently they were a type of chai stall. “Have you had cappuccino in Amman?” “I just got here Muhammad” I responded. “Amman has the best cappuccino in the world, very good cappuccino! You have to try it!” In the meantime, another stall with a neon sign emerged in the distance. In his excitement, Muhammad upped the speed. “Let me get you a cup!” he announced over oum kalthoum’s mesmerizing voice.
And so, a minute later, there we were, ordering two cappucinos. They came sweetened, with chocolate flakes on the top. No matter my protests, of course Muhammad would not let me pay. Difference between East and West, I thought. Everything doesn’t have a price on it. Sometimes the only currency trading hands is good will. So, facing the vast expanse of farmland in front of us, I took my first sip. On a cool night, the hot cappuccino was by far the best I had ever tasted. “How do you like it?” Muhammad asked. He already knew the answer from the look on the upper part of my face, the rest of it was buried deep into the cup. Laughing, he said “Best cappuccino, Mr. Arsalan!” “Mumtaaz!” I responded.
Scanning the horizon, I could see the amber glow from Amman’s lights. Finishing up, we got back in the car and resumed. I had a feeling I was going to like Amman. The Jordanian government lists Islamabad as one Amman’s ‘sister cities.’ In the days that I spent there, I certainly felt at home.
For our passengers today, a sample of Egypt’s finest, on the Corolla’s radio: