Fridays in the Middle East are the days that everything shuts down, and everyone goes to a local mosque. It is almost eerie to be in a city of millions where traffic is constantly seconds away from grid lock, and suddenly finding the streets completely empty just because it is Friday. It’s kind of like going out on Christmas day in America, except temperatures are generally hot, and it happens once a week.
In Amman, my friend Steve lives just a couple of blocks from the public market, which is open only on Fridays. It sets up in the middle of a normally busy street, because there are a lot of stalls and people rolling through this thing. There is very little planning involved with regard to the layout of the market stalls; they are quite literally thrown together. In addition, because of the heat and sun, tarps get thrown up in a disorganized fashion over each stall to protect us all from heat stroke.
In short, the Friday market is a crash course in Jordanian culture. Because of the variety of things being sold, and the variety of people there, you hear strange sounds, smell interesting scents, and run into people coming from every direction. It is sensory overload, but it is truly the people’s market.
The average Jordanian family lives off of about $5,000 per year. This makes public markets and bazaars very common places to congregate for the average person, because the goods sold at these places are affordable to all levels of income. What did we see?
The first thing we were told by our hosts was for girls to stay close to guys, because hands will reach out and pat behinds. Lisa wandered off from me once and learned this lesson, so after that she kept close to me and also folded her hands behind her back to cover her hind quarters. Why does this happen? Jordan is a moderate Muslim country (Saudi Arabia being conservative, and Egypt being liberal). Muslim culture is very protective of the dignity of women, which is why you will not see scantily clad women in any advertisement in the Middle East. Abstinence is at the level in Jordan that most right-wing conservatives in America would like to see it. Combine this with the family sense of honor (which means you do not bring shame on the family), and the fact that Jordanians tend not to marry until their 30s, and you get the idea how repressed some folks in their society may become. Adultery and fornication do occur, but these are shameful acts, so they are never spoken of. This is why a man may pat a woman on the rear during market; it is sometimes the only way to deal with his repression. Still, it’s not fun for the woman, and I kept Lisa close after her encounter.
The other thing that surprised me in the market was the clothing being sold. I would say clothing represented at least ¾ of what was being sold. The majority were western style clothes, with some traditional Middle Eastern garb thrown in. You saw it all, though: underwear, socks, t-shirts, pants, dresses, shoes, hats, etc. The shocking thing for me was that I noticed most of the t-shirts were American. Have you ever wondered what happened to that little league t-shirt you donated to Goodwill 15 years ago? I saw it. There were shirts from family reunions in Wyoming that occurred 12 years ago. I saw a lot of charity event t-shirts (like 5Ks or bake sales) from small town America. I even saw shirts with racist American slogans on them, and I just hoped that the people around me couldn’t read English very well as I buried the shirts under piles of other clothes. The oldest one I saw had a date for some festival from 1991, and it looked brand new. It was definitely in the 1990’s style with neon colors and weird geometric shapes on it, but I couldn’t believe it had not aged in 18 years. My favorite shirt I found was one that asked “Got Mullet?” above a picture of a guy with such a hairstyle. It cost only 1 JD (Jordanian Dinar), or about $1.40 to us.
What was also interesting to me was the amount of food being sold in this market. Smells pervaded everywhere, some good, and others pretty bad. We saw people cooking (while under the tarps) standard Middle Eastern stuff, and it was tempting. The sanitation was of question, though, so we passed. The guy I could not take my eyes off of was the man carrying, on his back, a large container of some sort of punch. It looked heavy. Around his waste was a belt with about 6 plastic cups. You could just walk up, hand him a JD, pick the cleanest dirty glass and have a drink. I kept daring Steve to do it, but he told me a story of an American friend who did try it, and immediately felt sick to his stomach. Still, it was interesting to see this “old world” tradition carrying on.
We walked through the market, and had some laughs at some of things we saw. After the events, though, I came to realize this really is no laughing matter. The people who are running the stalls are trying to make a living, and from what I heard, the price to rent space at the market, ramshackle as it is, is very high, which requires them to sell a lot to make any money at all. In addition, prices can’t be too high, because there are dozens of people selling similar goods who will cut their prices below yours to make a sale. Also, most of the people simply can’t pay the high prices for these goods, which is why they come to begin with.
I also noticed about Jordanians that they aren’t interested in being materialistic like Americans. They don’t own clothes they can just relax in, like us. Jordanians will wear their best clothes every single day, even if they only own 1 outfit. All of the people I saw were very well groomed, and took a lot of pride in their appearance. This becomes that much more important when you live in a society that isn’t wealthy. Even though I was wearing nice clothing for the entire trip, I often felt under dressed among people who only made a fraction of what I make in a year.
Today I am getting ready to go to work, and get myself stuck in Friday, American traffic. My mind is wandering to the Fridays I spent in the Middle East, where I awoke to the beautifully sung call to prayer, and I walk out into the streets that are virtually empty, because it is time to relax, reflect, and pray. I can’t help but think of the markets and bazaars which present such a cross-section of wonderful, peaceful, hardworking, and kind people. It is just another slice of life that has changed my own.