Abroad in Jordan – the Vegetable Man

To be honest, I’m still a little afraid of my Jordanian kitchen. Its low-tech appliances that require more than just the sterile push of a button don’t have the ease and comfort of your average American kitchen. Example: the gas for the oven and stove is simply kept in a tank in the kitchen that you have to turn on in order to cook anything. The directions for opening and closing the gas tank are in Arabic, which makes me shudder at the thought of any beginning Arabic students trying to cook in their apartments. After opening the gas, you have to find yourself a lighter, turn one of the burners’ knobs, and light up the burner as fast as you can, after which you pull your hand away from the newly lit flame lest you singe your fingertips.

(Photo courtesy of Taj Rasak via Creative Commons)

(Photo courtesy of Taj Rasak via Creative Commons)

As for the oven, let’s just say I don’t use it anymore. I’ve made it explode twice, from too much gas building up before lighting its burner. I have resigned myself to “cooking” ramen noodles most nights to avoid my enemy the oven.

It’s a miracle then that I went to buy vegetables the other day to cook a rare, non-ramen dinner with my roommate. Our local dukkan, a small convenience store a block down from the apartment, always has fresh local vegetables stocked by one friendly Egyptian man in his twenties known to us as the Vegetable Man. Everyone in our part of Amman, Jordan’s Shmeisani neighborhood knows the Vegetable Man and his coworkers in the dukkan, a space that serves as an unofficial gathering spot for locals who need last-minute items and ice cream sandwiches.

Even I, the awkward obvious foreigner, have been going to the same dukkan and exchanging greetings with the Vegetable Man since two years ago, when I studied Arabic over the summer. I would spend Ramadan nights walking down the street with my young host sister, past women in flowing black abayas whom she feared were ghosts roaming the night, past the local mosque glowing with green lights, to buy orange cream popsicles from the dukkan’s freezer. Sometimes the mosque would be in the middle of prayer, and we’d hear declarations of “Allah” from the loudspeakers as we walked down the street. When the Vegetable Man saw us, would always smile and say hello as we passed his crates of tomatoes and cabbages.

Much to my delight, when I returned to Amman this past fall for a year-long program, the study abroad gods blessed me with an apartment in the same exact neighborhood – Shmeisani – as two years previously, not two blocks from my old host family’s house and just down the street from the same old dukkan. It must have been my destiny.

The first time I walked back into the store, I saw all the same employees at work, in between those aisles of yogurt and light bulbs and pickled mangoes that I felt like I’d never truly left behind. I was sure most of the employees didn’t remember me, as I had faded away into the handful of other foreigners who rotated through the neighborhood every time study abroad programs began and ended.

As the months went by, my daily dukkan trips for noodles and nutella made me become one of the regulars again. Despite my “regular” status, I felt I’d never really be a part of the community so long as my grocery shopping consisted mostly of noodles – the nourishment of broke students and unattached young adults everywhere. I was very proud then the other day when I asked the Vegetable Man in my best Jordanian-accented Arabic where the tomatoes and onions were so I could cook my fancy homemade dinner with my roommate – Look, good people of the dukkan, I’m becoming a real adult now who cooks real dinners!

(Photo courtesy of Taj Rasak)

(Photo courtesy of Taj Rasak)

He pointed out the vegetables I needed in his heavy Egyptian accent and I tried my best to follow along despite the rough, distinctly non-Levantine sounds of Egyptian Arabic. Eventually he began excitedly talking to me about American foreign policy – as people in Jordan often do when they learn I’m from the states – and, understanding a pitifully small amount of what he was saying, I nodded my head and made smiles I’m sure were incredibly awkward. “Chapel Hill…murder…very bad” is about all I grasped from the conversation. But then my friend the Vegetable Man moved on to something I did understand.

“I remember…you used to come here…with a small chubby girl…ice cream…every day.” Immediately I knew he was talking about me and my old host sister from two years ago, and our nightly ice cream trips to the dukkan throughout the month of Ramadan. I thought up until then that he had to have forgotten about the Madeline of two years ago who barely spoke Arabic then left at the end of her two-month stay. But of course he didn’t forget – I’m one of the dukkan regulars now.

I don’t know if he realized it, but the Vegetable Man made me very happy in that moment. In my own small and random way, I felt I made a step closer to becoming a little part of the Shmeisani community – to me, a big achievement. Indeed, Shmeisani is feeling more and more like home the longer I stay here and the more neighbors I connect with.

I didn’t make an acceptance speech for my “achievement” in the dukkan, but that night my roommate and I slowly cooked our tomato and cream pasta sauce to perfection with the vegetables I bought. Unfortunately, tackling the oven will have to wait for a fancier dinner.

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Madeline is a senior at the College studying International Studies and Political Science. She just returned to Charleston from a year abroad in Jordan, where she discovered her passion for traveling throughout the Middle East.

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