On Tuesday I ate lunch with a Jordanian, a Palestinian and a Bedouin. I was in Amman (the capital of Jordan), and I’d just finished my GRE test, so I went walking around the very American-style shopping district of Sweifiyeh. I walked up and down the hills, trying to find a way out of the shops, and saw an interesting-looking butcher/restaurant. I poked my head into the huge chrome room, saw the long wooden carving tables, the hanging lamb carcasses, the bowls of chopped vegetables – and decided it would be too expensive for me. However, as soon as I came back into the sunlight, a man sitting at the one outside table asked me if I was hungry: “You can eat with us”.
There were three men at the table: the city man was dressed in typical casual-business jacket and trousers; the Palestinian was wearing a long Muslim beige robe under his coat; the Bedouin was wearing a red head-dress and white robe.
We sat in the cool, brilliant sun and the manager of the butcher’s brought out a huge circular metal dish of chopped grilled lamb: chunks of meat, fat and kidneys. The plate was probably the size of the wheel of a lorry. We ate the pieces of lamb with bread and lemon-and-salt-flavoured tomatoes and green peppers.
The Palestinian asked me, “What do you know about Islam?”
I didn’t really know what to say. I said, “Only what I’ve read in books.”
“What have you read?”
“About…. about the differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites…”
The Jordanian snorted. “Shi’ites! They are not Muslims! You’ve seen them in Syria – terrible. Shi’ites, Alawis… They are not Muslims. Only Sunnis are true Muslims.”
The Palestinian shook his head, and said in Arabic, “No – we are all Muslims. Anyone who says “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet” is a Muslim.”
Even going from one country to its neighbour makes you think again. Amman seemed so much richer than Damascus, that all my theories of Arab culture and politics seemed suddenly unwieldy. The newer areas of the city – Sweifiyeh in particular – were incredibly American. In the shopping mall area surrounding the GRE testing centre, Starbucks and friends were all there.
I felt sad, as if Syria and Jordan symbolised the two options under modern globalisation. Either you stay isolated from the world and ended up with something like the Souq Hamediyeh in Damascus: grotty, shadowy and unsafe for women’s bottoms, or you went full out for Americana, and ended up with Sweifiyeh, a shiny shopping district identical to any in the world.
I ate more lamb, and the others at the table finished and left, leaving me with the Jordanian who had first invited me. He insisted that I ate until I was full. When I finally stopped, he turned to acquaintances passing in the street and called them up, offering them some more late lunch. I asked him where he worked, and he pointed at the perfume shop next door. “This butcher is my neighbour.” It suddenly seemed like the American shops and street grid-system were only the surface reality, and something very Middle Eastern continued underneath. As more men sat down at our table and ate, I felt, very sentimentally, that there was more than the two options, that the different parts of the world were going to survive.