Amman in Rain

Note: This piece is meant to be purely descriptive, and was written for fun over the course of a slow, rainy afternoon.

Amman is the city of beige. Decrepit buildings stand in decaying yellow on the landscape, which drops into the centre of the city and rises around it like a bowl. At noon, the sky is a polished blue. Outside of a traffic jam suffocated in a cacophony of gasoline smells and car horns, in city streets of scraping asphalt and old men drinking from glass tea cups without handles, the day is still. Paper flaps in the wind; dice lands on a wooden checkers board. Streets of solitude, resolute—remnants of an Amman dead, and here dying.

A young girl in the olive drab of a public school uniform tugs at her brother’s sleeve, but he’s too invested in using a crushed Coca Cola can as a football to respond. His kick sends the can clattering among the garbage bins. The girl, annoyed, tugs again at her brother’s shirt, hurrying.

“It isn’t going to rain,” he says. He looks incredulously at the sky. “There aren’t any clouds.” But the girl swears by her mother’s word, and her mother swears by the forecast. The newspaper said rain, and that means rain, logic be damned. She pulls at him and he reluctantly surrenders, parting a last glance at the can in both tribute and farewell.

Rain clouds gather in the afternoon. They cover the eastern sky, dappled gray and dark hue: thin, thin, thickening, thickening, thickening, thick. Grand, magnificent, beautiful, lush with the imaginative complexity which fills a landscape painter with awe, they soar high over the greased stain of car smoke and scrap and paint and cigarette smoke, over buildings old and new.

In the streets of solitude, the old men look up and mutter. They drain their tea cups and pack-up their shisha. The checkers board closes with a snap. Employees, exiting the offices with a chill, stand around, hailing unresponsive taxis; decent public transport is a dream.

Across the street, an orange light pulses from the baker’s, throbbing warmth. People gather at his door, buyers come to plunder. The smells rise in curls and trails: fresh bread and pita, raisin and sugar and dough. The young boy now presses a bag of bread, round and stuffed with dates, onto his father’s waist. The father humours the boy by adding a pack of coconut cakes. He pops one in his mouth as he stands in line: his teeth break the crust and sink into the soft interior, a delight.

The rain is good for the coffee seller, too. The smell of freshly toasted Turkish coffee beans spills into the street, beckoning unsuspecting coffee addicts to their salvation. There is no cappuccino, here, no macchiato or latte or ice-cold coffee to sip from plastic cups. The local coffee trade is set to a palate different to the modern world’s, with its own champions and critics, its addicts and dependents, hobblers who walk like they are on crutches before their first shot of ahwa. They come and throw their money frantically at the coffee seller. He hands them beans and powdered coffee, dried watermelon seeds salted for snacks (bizir, they call it, and buy it in bags), chocolate and sugar-coated almond.

Traffic police stand at watch near dangerous intersections, ready to direct. People pray that the municipality has removed the manholes, that the tunnels won’t flood, that the torrents won’t rise and cease traffic to a hopeless halt. The comedians scribble jokes—naghasheh, a comedy as sarcastic as it is silly, is an exclusively local commodity. The radio host stands ready to inform people what areas to avoid. Cars, speckled with mud yet recently washed, congest the street. Steam rises from the exhaust port. The city stands poised, tense, waiting. The air is electric.

When the rain falls, it falls with something like a sigh. It is slow, at first. You see it in the light of streetlamps, in glimpses as it dots the street, in pattering on coats and drips in ahwa. Then another burst in the clouds: the rain now in force, in the streets in streams. Children shriek in delight and stick out their tongues to drink in the rain, streaming vapour from their mouths and nostrils, pretending it is cigarette smoke. Then another: the rain now in remorseless torrents, irredeemable and fanatic. It splashes off building rooftops and peels down window panes. People scurry. Ambulance sirens tumble from a distance, reaching for those who bet poorly against speeding in the rain.

The water, shimmering, rushes in waves, rises to ankle height. Socks soaked, wheels spraying, exhaust smoke rinsed. People clutch wet plastic bags bulging with the food necessary to survive the rain, running with heads directed like harpoons for shelter. Women in hijab cluster for warmth. One articulates that Jordanian-Palestinian exaltation of cold: Ahheeeehhhh.

A man sells dried fruit in paper bags, dates and tangerines. Shop owners stick their heads outside their doors, marvelling like children.

The father looks out the window. Behind him, his wife pours out tea for the family. His daughter, now in a dark red jumper boasting incomprehensible English, places her arm around his waist and rests her head there. “Do you think it’ll snow?” she says.

Rain in Amman isn’t rare, but it is an occasion. Children are not experienced enough to know that it does not always herald snow, but snow is a strong enough hope that it factors into their prayers. The father smiles despite himself and hugs her closer to him.

“No,” he says. “I imagine you’ll have school tomorrow.”

“That’s not why I was asking.” The lie dies at her lips, in the sheepish grin reserved for children joking with their parents.

“At least this washes the city,” says the father.

The mother hands them tea and calls-out to her son, who is nibbling on his bread. The father lights a cigarette and blows out the window. His daughter watches the smoke mingle with the steam and once again wishes he would quit. The son switches on the TV at his mother’s command, and she sits cross-legged, watching the local news broadcast images of the city’s heroics—always, of course, heroics. The police pushing a stranded car. The police helping a pregnant woman to the hospital. The police directing the ambulance. The father compares these images with the traffic, which even now suffocates downtown Amman. He chooses to remain silent, fearing a criticism of the government parroted by his children. The government does not look kindly upon criticism.

The news changes. A broken city of grey mud and grey flood blares from the TV, the news presenter giving voice to the fear which has clutched every Palestinian in Jordan. Gaza, bereft of anything in the aftermath of a war now three months dead, drowns in the rain. The faces of the broken, seeking shelter in ruined buildings, smile because they have to.

It is difficult to keep hopelessness at bay—here, always, in the Middle East. The mother prays for God’s support, as she has so often before. The father plucks another cigarette from his pack. The children look on, desensitized except for a small twinge at the hope, which somehow remains, that it snows.

Across the street, the neighbour strums wistfully on an oud. His song is old, so ingrained in culture most can hum it without knowing its origin. The notes drift like silver fish through the rain. Beneath, an old man, wearing a head cap with its wool in tufts, calls-out to him in praise: “Allah!” At the street lamps, a beggar calls God’s name for mercy. She does not ask for spare change, but compassion. My children, she says. My husband. They are sick. They are dying. She holds an open palm and pleads.

From an open rooftop—and most rooftops in Amman are open, flat, an extra floor to enjoy the open summer air—the city is bathed in dark, flourished with lights which glow in isolation in the dark. Teenagers huddle up there, braving the rain to sneak cigarettes. Their fathers, though smokers as well, would loudly disapprove.

And so it happens, year after year. The rain washes away the mundane everyday, then bubbles-up acute hope and exasperation. It unites the city’s residents. It tests the municipality’s foresight and refreshes the air. The people look forward to it, then wish it gone.

The father shepherds his children to bed as the mother curls-up in front of the television. His daughter asks him again: “Do you really think it won’t snow?” Her brother releases an earnest prayer: Inshallah!

The father smiles, shaking his head. “We can only hope.”

They do.