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The Salon of the Diwan (Credit:http://www.pbase.com/khaled_im/diwan_bisharat)

I’m writing about this not because its particularly earth shattering, but because it’s the last experience I had in Amman and it was cool enough to write about.

It was  yesterday when I hopped out of the Asia hotel with “Rock” in Downtown Amman. My flight for Waco would be leaving at 2 am and I planned on spending 12 or so hours waiting in the airport (only because I had to check out of the Asia before noon.).

I arrived in Amman after those few days in Israel and still had no idea where I would stay. The only plan I had was to get to Queen Alia Airport somehow. But, I found the Asia hotel by chance and stayed there for night. This makeshift mode of travel had made the experience much more rich and interesting. I always tended to meet interesting people and hear more of their stories. This is partially because I depended on the locals around me for information and help.

The manager of the hotel was there as usual talking to an older guy I had talked to earlier that morning. Both had worked as contractors in Iraq for a few years. When I had passed through earlier, the manager introduced me to the other guy saying “I worked with this Fucker in Iraq” in a light Jordanian accent. Both discussed the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan with me as well as the world as a whole, with a few conspiracy theories thrown in.

The older guy had been in charge a logistical team of 300 in Iraq. His men accompanied American soldiers, who did not know Arabic or the local culture, and helped them choose the correct targets, interact with the local population, give better insight into where and how to set ambushes, and generally get around more easily. When he had this job, he spent enough time at the pentagon and American embassies to have been in the states a great deal. His English was very good, and I guessed that he got his ability to swear in English from our soldiers and marines.

As I began to check out, I started talking to the older guy again about how best to get to the airport (I planned on taking a taxi to the bus terminal and then taking the 3JD shuttle bus from there). “Fuck no” he said, and offered to walk me to a nearby bus stop where I could get to the bus terminal for a quarter of a JD, so I tagged along. As he helped me pick up my bag he began talking about his family. “I come from one of the oldest and most well known families in Amman” he said “the Bisharat family. We have established a Diwan near where I am taking you. It is open to everyone, travelers, family, anyone.”

I had no idea what a Diwan was so I asked him about it. He replied “a diwan is a gathering place, both of family and of guests. Here you can have coffee, tea, and enjoy company”.

I certainly wasn’t looking forward to spending 12 hours in Queen Alia airport, and this would be a nice way to delay that experience so I followed further and talked to him some more about the old city of Amman, and the travelers within it. We agreed a lot about a few things. Traveling on the cheap is in many ways the best way to get to know a city, because it requires you to be in contact with the guy on the street. You need to find the best places to get a cheap bite to eat just like most of the Jordanians in this area need to do. As the old guy said “In this way you meet everyone, the good people, and the shitheads too, you get to know them equally”.

I’d met plenty of shitheads in Jordan.  But most of these were just cabbies looking to rip me off or shopkeepers who could tell I didn’t have half a piaster to my name. Generally, the man on the street in Jordan either doesn’t particularly care about what you’re up to either way, or is genuinely kind and helpful.

I’ve only ever met one guy who said that he hated America, but he still walked me to a shop I was looking for, and engaged in conversation with me. The old guy had a similar way about him. He saw Americans as gullible, and introverted. They, he says, tend to live their lives within the same town they were born in and can never see beyond what they do on American television.

“Of course, there are plenty of Jordanians who do the same thing”  I said. I’ve met and talked to plenty of Jordanians over the summer and while some were well traveled, most spent most of their lives in the town they were born in.

“But, we do not want to control the world” he said, and I left the topic there.

The old guy did appreciate one group of Americans in particular, the Marines.

“I worked with the Marines. For every other American it is ‘I, I, I’ there is no sense of…” he waved his hands a bit inviting a phrase to come to him. I offered “being part of a whole?” He nodded quickly and continued “The Marines had duty, and didn’t give a shit about themselves, they were the only Americans I know who didn’t give a fuck about this” he gestured to the air immediately around him, his personal space “and just did what they had to do with courage”.

We got to the stairs of the Diwan. The entrance was a block or so from the King Abdullah mosque, and just down the street from the Palace Hostel, which I stayed at with some of the excavation crew for our first weekend off.

The structure was built in the 1920s and stood out from the buildings around it, though I had never particularly noticed it before. It was two stories tall, and had a façade of white hewn stones. One balcony with a wrought iron partition overlooked the busy street and the many shops below.  After walking up a flight of stairs, we entered a hallway flanked by four rooms. This led to a main salon, which was surrounded by other rooms and chambers. These included a large office, where I put my bags, a kitchen, eating area, and the opening that led to the outside balcony.

His family, he said, had plenty of ties with the royal families of the region. His grandfather was a Turkish Pasha, he introduced me to another older man who happened to be the father of the guy I was with. The older man’s father was Mamdough Bisharat, but more on him later. He was speaking to a middle aged woman at the time but he inquired about whether or not I take sugar with my coffee and promptly began making me a cup of Turkish coffee. This family history, like any family history in the Arab world could be, was confusing. Photos of every Jordanian monarch as well as a few who ruled Iraq were put up all over the place with some member of the Old man’s family in it. Stories of cousins and uncles who had their chance at the throne taken from them were told as I looked through the old photos in the main salon.

Before we moved to the next room, he finally asked me my name, I told him and asked for his, “Rock” he said (a nickname given to him by the Americans he worked with).  Rock waved towards the salon at the middle-aged woman “she was married to this man” and pointed to a photo of another son of King Hussein.

“I” Rock said ”was married to the heiress of the B.F. Goodrich company. You know of it?” My jaw dropped slightly, but I nodded. Rock was married to her for a few years and had a child with her before their divorce. His son from that marriage was now 40 years old.“It was difficult being married to her” he said “everywhere we went, every party, she was known but I was not.” He lit a cigarette and offered me one, I accepted “I couldn’t put up with that shit anymore so I left her”.

I asked a few more questions about the history of the area and why this Diwan was set up. The Diwan was purchased some years ago by the duke Mamdough Bisharat, who was Rock’s grandfather. Mamdough Bisharat was granted the title of “duke of Mukheibeh” by King Hussein years ago on account of his philanthropic work. The Diwan represents an effort of his to preserve a piece of old Amman. Every other building in the area was built after the 1940s, and many of those have been totally gutted and renovated. The duke meant for this to remain as a counterbalance to the push of modernity.

By this time, the son of the Duke of Mukheibeh brought coffee in crystal ware on a serving dish. I thanked him in Arabic. He then sat across from us in the Salon and gazed out past the balcony.

The Diwan was furnished with items from childhood homes of Bisharat members all over the country. Radios, desks, ottomans, cabinets and telephones from the 1920s dotted the salon and surrounding rooms. Rock pointed to a few in particular which he grew up using. One in particular was an ornate shoe shining stand, which looked like it had some Victorian illustrations on the side of it. “Here, niggers love these” he commented.

I asked Rock about whether or not he brought guests here often. He did for a few reasons. You might be able to tell that Rock was the kind of guy who longed for the good old days. “Back then, love was stronger, anger was harder. Women today are like plastic, back then they were juicy.” The Diwan represents the Amman he grew up in, while it is completely within urban sprawl, its architecture and the warmth of the interior makes it a small oasis.It makes for a great place to visit to take a break from the rat race just outside the door.

The Reading Room and Amman Outside

As cosmopolitan as the items in the Diwan were for their time and place, the Basharat family had seen some very interesting times. Another major structure owned by the Basharat family is a small, well, fortress outside of Amman between the city and Queen Alia airport. The family operated a farm out of this complex, which could house over a hundred or so fighting men and farmers aside from extended members of the family. At that time the complex was surrounded by Bedouin tribes and bandits who would attack frequently. These attacks happened as recently as 50 years ago. As he was describing all this I was picturing a mix of a spaghetti western and the Seven Samurai. Rock affirmed my mental image by saying: “a fucking western. Like cowboys and Indians. Life was hard”.

For someone who barely knows anything about the history of Amman, this was a nice way to get a better perspective on the city. I sat with Rock across from his Dad for a while longer before thanking them very much for their hospitality, going into the old office for my bags and heading out into a street full of jackhammers pedestrians and taxis.

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