My latest post on Devour Blog (read more at DevourBlog.com)
Amman has a lot of classic city divisions: east side versus west side, uptown versus downtown, first circle versus seventh circle. When I first arrived here, I didn’t know my left from right (or east from west) and was forced to rely on my cultured knowledge base to guide me. After a few careful listenings of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” I figured I didn’t want to hang out in white bread world with all its high class toys and that it was time for me to experience Amman’s downtown: al balad.
Balad is one of those Arabic words that means a million different things. It can refer to the downtown area of a city, but it can also mean country or village or, as one of the few Arabic words incorporated into French slang, the boondocks.
Navigating al balad in Amman requires a bit of wit. Besides the fact that addresses operate within a sort of geographical relativism (“We’re across the street from the Post Office. Which Post Office? The one by the jewelry store.”), there are also a lot of distractions on the way. Like dark alleyways with fresh pomegranate juice stands, shops selling useless Middle Eastern-style snuggies, and evening satellite installations of questionable efficacy.
Luckily I was with two well-seasoned balad explorers, Jamil and Rich, who managed to steer me away from the siren-like temptation of pomegranate juice alley and get me to Jafra.
Once we arrived at Jafra, with Middle East snuggies in tow (I resisted pomegranate alley but they couldn’t resist buying blankets with arm holes), we were greeted with a warm smile and a waiting time of “five to ten minutes.” Jamil and I took a seat in the waiting room, which happened to also be a library, office, and aquarium, while Rich took charge of getting a table. Apparently, in al balad, everything is up for negotiation. Including restaurant wait times.
It took him about five minutes but Rich returned triumphantly having located a table. Unfortunately once we sat down we realized the table was at about knee-level, which was good for playing backgammon but not much else, and so a relocation was required. Five minutes later we were reseated at a table of food-appropriate height and ready to order. (Total wait time: five to ten minutes.)
Jafra fits into the category of paradoxical food paradises. It is nearly impossible to find without someone to guide you. And yet once found, it is impossible to forget. People from all walks of life come to Jafra — East siders, West siders, uptowners, downtowners — and yet more often than not, you’ll run into friends there. It’s unbearably loud, but surprisingly intimate.
Rich, who collects languages like they’re a dime a dozen, ordered a panoply of mezze for the table: yogurt-y labaneh with toasted coconut and garlic, hummus with charred bits of grilled meat, spicy muhammara with roasted walnuts, vinegar-y makdous stuffed eggplants… it was all gone in less than an hour, the oily dishes wiped clean with swabs of warm Arabic bread, fresh from the oven.
The conversation died down and in its place came the lyrical twangs of an oud musician, like a lullaby. It was midnight and while Jafra showed no signs of slowing, al balad had taken its toll on us and we reluctantly got up and headed out into the evening chill. I said goodbye to Jamil and Rich and thanked them for their guidance through Amman’s downtown distractions, shivering through my post-meal sleepyhead state.
It was at this point that I understood the wisdom behind the Middle Eastern snuggie.
Jafra Restaurant & Cafe
Downtown, opposite the Post Office
+962 (0)6 462 2551