Today I plan to spend the day writing. My writing has fallen several days behind the present, partly because of my compulsion to detail and partly due to spending excessive amounts of time researching things like coffee. In a way I’ve come to dread eventful days because they can take days to write, during which even more events typically happen. The whole process feels sisyphean at times. It’s alright though because today I’m going to do some catch-up. Upon entering the ADT offices I bypass Akram’s office and head straight to my desk in the back. What I find waiting for me wrecks everything I had planned in my head.
Two young boys are sitting by my desk, swinging their legs back and forth and staring into space. We lock eyes and hit a total social impasse. Neither party know who the other is or why they’re here nor has any means of communicating. I wave kinda and bide my time by pretending to be looking for something in the room. Akram suddenly appears and saves the day. “Hey buddy!” he says, patting my shoulder, “These are my sons, Shaheen and Nizar.” Shaheen is twelve years old, and looks like he came straight out of Leave it to Beaver, with the combed-back hair, the button-up shirt and the final flickers of pre-pubescent innocence in his eyes. His skin is a bit more olive-toned than Jerry Mathers’ though. Nizar is eight. He still has his chubby baby face and Michelin Man fingers. He also still has that characteristic of toddlers where it seems like they can scan your soul just by looking at you. Akram ushers them out of the room and I sit down at the desk to get that writing done.
I sit there for a few minutes with my cheek squished against my closed fist. I’ve got “Today I” written but I’m struggling with the next step. I glance up and see Nizar doing the aforementioned soul-scanning on me. I smile at him and he silently walks out of the room. I know he’ll be back. I’m novel, I know their dad, and I’m at peak “cool” age for a young boy. Whether or not I actually am cool is a completely separate issue, so I google “what to do with young boys”. The results are amazingly useless. They include making lemonade icecubes, playing with “rice trays,” board game boxes filled with uncooked rice(?), and crafting homemade maracas. They seem like activities that allow moms to be amused in the presence of boys rather than amuse boys. I hear approaching pitter-patter, so I look around for some last second inspiration. The only things around me are office supplies, but nothing that … Ahah!
Shaheen and Nizar come up to my desk and stare at me The Shining-style. I have three pieces of printer paper laid before me on the desk. “Do you know how to make paper airplanes?” They don’t respond but they take seats across from me. I pull up a “how to make paper airplanes” website. This works perfectly. The visual instructions are just difficult enough to follow that the boys make a lot of mistakes but I don’t, which allows for a lot of wordless communication. When one of them does a fold incorrectly I can tap their hand, wag my finger and demonstrate the correct procedure. I tend to narrate these movements in English, knowing full well that they don’t understand me, but it comes out on its own.
Our first airplanes are constructed. Having once spent more than decade as a young boy I know how to get them on one’s side, and that’s by letting them break the rules. While there is probably no rule specifically prohibiting people from tossing paper airplanes off the front balcony of this office building, it feels like something that a reasonable adult would tell you to stop doing if they saw it. I lead the boys over to the balcony, playing up the transgressive element with histrionic tip-toeing and by putting my finger to my lips. The balcony looks out over a line of dense traffic so, not being a psycho who would risk causing an accident to win some brownie points with a couple of children, I get the three of us to throw our airplanes parallel to the building and into the narrow parking lot directly below us. Even though I designed this exercise to amuse the boys, I can’t help but feel the thrill myself when one of the airplanes bonks into an expensive car or whizzes right past some lady’s head. All three of us are hooked. We rush back to the office and whip up another set of paper airplanes. We throw them over and over again until they litter the parking lot. I start to worry that the boys will tire of this soon but their enthusiasm shows no sign of waning. Too bad, mine kind of is. Kids are supposed to have shorter attention spans than adults, but I think that must be relative to the object of attention and whether it appeals more to kids or to adults. They may not have the attention span to write 15,680 words worth of blog posts, but they’ve got me beat with throwing paper airplanes.
Per usual, it’s Akram to the rescue. He appears in the doorway with a workman behind him. The workman holds one of our battered airplanes in his hand. “He caught you,” Akram says, grinning through his cigarette. This is the ideal. Akram isn’t angry but he’s terminated the airplaning. The problem is what I do with the boys now. After Akram leaves they stay behind and look at me expectantly. Some sort of imprinting has taken place and I’ve become their de facto babysitter for the rest of the day. I don’t have the slightest clue what to do with them.
I come under the auspice of an unlikely savior: the fidget spinner. I’ve been peripherally aware of these things for a few months. I didn’t know what they were but I didn’t care enough to find out. Now I see their incredible power. In case you’re not in the know, a fidget spinner is a toy for children and self-infantilizing adults. They’re triangular in shape and about 3 inches wide. There’s a circle of plastic in the center of the fidget spinner that you hold between your thumb and one of your fingers. Three congruent blades protrude from this circle like on a fan. The only function of the fidget spinner is that you can flick these blades and they’ll spin around and make a buzzing sound. For whatever reason this taps into a of glitch of the developing mind. Kids, at least these two kids, derive seemingly endless amusement from it. It’s odd that, despite the fact that we’ve had the technology to make these things for at least two hundred and fifty years, they’ve only caught on recently. My guess is that it’s because they derive their appeal from an environment that’s both mentally hyper-stimulating and physically stultifying for children and, again, self-infantilizing adults. Shaheen, Nizar and I spend the next hour or so just flicking these things and putting them on our faces and elbows. It's fun at first, but soon it's way more boring than the paper airplanes, but it’s too late to return to that.
While playing with the fidget spinners I discover that Shaheen is highly intelligent. He’s twelve, but his English is already good enough that we can communicate almost everything we want to to each other. He can even read some English. Shaheen and Nizar teach me Arabic words like “afwan” for “you’re welcome”, “na’am” for “yes”, “la” for “no”, “biss” for “cat”, “kalb” for “dog” (if these look wrong to you it may be because you are familiar with a different dialect of Arabic, or maybe these kids were messing with me). It’s surprisingly fun to get schooled by children, even, if not especially, when they laugh at my mispronunciations. They teach more Arabic than anyone else, including Arabic for Dummies.
Akram calls us into the office and we eat an enormous lunch of mansaf together. This does a number on everyone’s insulin systems, Nizar falls asleep in his chair and I’m left with fluttering eyelids for the rest of the day, everyone except for Shaheen that is. Shaheen gets on my laptop and goes to a gaming website. In a panic I snatch it away from him and clear my search history before returning it to him. Shaheen is really enthusiastic about the internet games. He shouts and sings and bounces up and down in his chair whenever he beats a level. I sit across from him downloading the photos I’ve taken onto Mahmoud’s computer while exerting great effort to stay awake.
Shaheen invites me over to play with him. The game he’s playing is extremely easy for me and not for him, which wins me even more cool guy points. Nizar wanders somnambulistically into the room. I offer for him to play with us but he elects instead to resume flicking his fidget spinner.
It’s getting close to 6:30, and as much as I like these kids I also need to get some work done and it looks as though that’s only going to happen at home. I tell Akram I’m leaving and then go to say goodbye to his kids. I really do like them, and just waving to them or shaking their hands would be too cold and inexpressive. However, as I’ve said, I’m from New England, so no one ever taught me how to express any emotions other than acquiescence or indignation, so when I go to either hug, pat the heads of, or pat the shoulders of these kids I end up doing a botched synthesis of all of the above. I don’t really know how to describe it. As I head for the door I just hope that Shaheen and Nizar thought that was some American custom and not the random mishap of an awkward young adult.
Mahmoud made two suggestions for things I could write about. The first was mansaf and the second was how he is a crazy driver. Mansaf deserves its own miscellaneous note, so here I’m going to restrict myself to the latter topic. While it’s true that if Mahmoud were a driver in the United States he would be regarded as a dangerous maniac and likely end up doing jail time, in Amman he’s not even one standard deviation from of the norm. For example, once when I was in the car with Mahmoud he cut diagonally across three lanes of moving traffic without signalling in order to make an illegal u-turn on a red light while there was oncoming traffic in the lane he was making the u-turn into. But again, he’s in good company in Amman. People rarely signal here and I’ve yet to discern any pattern concerning the times that they do. None of the cars I’ve ridden in have had seatbelt buckles in their backseats, and I’m the only person I’ve seen who’s made use of the ones in the front seats. And extreme driving antics like Mahmoud’s are common. One time I saw a man driving with two children sitting in his lap. When Mahmoud drove me back from the airport the first night we passed a truck driving in the space between the leftmost lane and the traffic barrier. Ironically, the one thing I think is safer about traffic in Amman than in the states is crossing the street. In the States you depend on the driver to stop at the crosswalk. If you have a drunk or distracted driver you can easily get mowed down. In Amman, however, the onus is on the pedestrian to pay attention to the traffic. The pedestrian’s assumption is that the car is not going to stop, so even if the driver is drunk or distracted and doesn’t see you it doesn’t matter because you're looking and reacting.
I did some research to see whether crossing the street is safer in the United States or Jordan. The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, which is funded by the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, reported that there were 70,000 pedestrian injuries in the United States in 2015. The Jordan Ministry of Transported reported that a pedestrian accident occurred in Jordan every 2.28 hours in 2014. If you multiply that out that’s 3842 pedestrian accidents in 2014. If you divide those two numbers by their countries’ respective populations in their respective years you get ~0.0002 for the US and ~0.0004 for Jordan. Now this isn’t quite precise both because the years are different and because these are just raw numbers that don’t say what factors produced them. Nonetheless, because the number is approximately twice as much for Jordan, I think this refutes my above hypothesis that street crossing is safer in Jordan than in the States. In fact, now I feel a little silly for even thinking that.
This blog is written by Sam Copeland, an intern with the Polus Center and Asia Development Training, about his time in Amman during the summer of 2017. It is meant to be read in a linear manner, so scroll down to the bottom and then go up for the full experience.