Sunday, February 25, 2018

Wadi Attun

After a very late night in which Elise and I attended our first Black and White Ball, we were offered up a day too beautiful too squander. Not that the kids would have let us waste it away in bed, anyway.

We headed down the Dead Sea Highway to one of the many wadis. Pulling off the side of the road, many of the trailheads are not marked. One needs a guide book or Bedouin prescience to know where to bounce off the highway.

"Wadi" means riverbed in Arabic, and the hikes follow streams and rivers to their sources from the Dead Sea. Wadi Attun is a relatively unknown hike leading to a hot spring. We only saw a few other hikers along the path. It isn't a long hike, but it does require some scrambling over rocks and boulders which can make it a little more challenging for small legs. Clementine has earned some street cred on the trails of Shenandoah, but this was a different sort of challenge, one that, perhaps, is best tackled without a turkey sandwich in one hand, which is how she attempted to make her way back down the trail.

The landscape was as impressive as many families dedicate entire summer vacations and many thousands of dollars to see. Clementine and I spent most of the hike up trying to keep our shoes dry which ended up being, mostly, a useless exercise. Sam and Peter, on the other hand, took the direct -- and perhaps wiser route -- by forging straight up the wadi, through ankle-deep water. 

A short ways up the trail, we came to the first of two pools in the river. The kids wasted no time stripping down to their swimwear. With the exception of Peter who decided to just swim with all his clothes on. 

The water, fed by a hot spring, was bath water-warm.

The second pool was a little larger with a waterfall. The kids spent a couple of hours splashing in the water. They made dams with the rocks, forming new pools, and played in the mud. After several weeks of cold, rainy weather that kept us cooped up, the sun and the water was just what the doctor ordered. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Beit Sitti

A couple of weeks ago, the weather began to warm somewhat and we were able to open the windows during the day and get some fresh air into the house. The winter needn't mean holing oneself up indoors, but morning roads in the cold wind are never much fun, and it is a herculean task to get the kids to want to do anything outdoors when the weather is less than inviting. Unfortunately, now, there is cold and rain in the forecast. Spring can't come fast enough.

We did take advantage of the break in the weather to drive north to Umm Qais. The following weekend, we joined some friends for a cooking class at Beit Sitti for mansaf and mutabal.

"Beit" means "house" in English, and "Sitti" is "my grandmother", so translated it means "My Grandmother's House". Interestingly enough, my brothers and I called my paternal grandmother "Sitti" growing up. My grandparents were Lebanese. My grandfather, Jidu, was born in Lebanon, and my grandmother was born in Boston to Lebanese parents. Of course, as a small child, I never put two and two together, or thought to much about why my grandmother was called Sitti.

I have many memories of Sunday afternoons spent at their house in Flamingo Park in downtown West Palm Beach. My grandfather passed away when I was very young, but I remember he carried a string of prayer beads (I remember them being called "worry beads" for some reason. Knowing how much my own father worries that shouldn't be a surprise) and he would cut the crust off our sandwiches for us. Their house was large and sat on a large lot surrounded by orange, mango, and avocado trees. He would squeeze fresh orange juice for us which we weren't nearly as excited about as we should have been, because -- of course -- fresh-squeezed meant it had pulp in it.

We would often meet my grandparents at the Syrian-Lebanese Club off of Forest Hill Blvd. I don't know if it is still there. As a young boy with no point of comparison, it was its own special torture. The highlight was the food, spits of grilled chicken and lamb, but the Arab music, the smoke, dance, and flocks of unknown relatives who would dote over us and squeeze our tender cheeks between weathered, calloused fingers was a rite of passage I could have done without. I don't know if the club is still there. I have thought to take my own kids there as a form of retribution, so they could share in my misery. But if I took them there now, it would have a whole new and special meaning. It would remind them of Jordan, and hopefully bring back a swell of happy memories, an experience akin to the one we have now when we go to an Indian restaurant for dosas and idlis.

When we arrived, there was already a pot cooking on the stove outside. We would begin by making mutabal, an eggplant dip similar to baba ghanouj, but without the tahini. It has a wonderful smokey flavor that is achieved by placing the eggplants whole on a direct flame so the skin blisters and peels. 

Going to Beit Sitti felt like the end of a journey, in a way. But also knowing the journey is not quite over. I don't think it will be until we go to Lebanon, but this was a happy start. I was curious how much Beit Sitti might remind me of my own grandmother's house, and it definitely did not disappoint. The old refrigerator and the black and white photos on the walls were just like the refrigerator in my grandmother's kitchen, a can of Hawaiian Punch in the door.

The adults didn't do much actual cooking which was just fine by me. The kids, however, were each handed six-inch knives and asked to chop tomatoes and cucumbers for a farmer's salad. Peter wielded the dagger with an uncomfortable amount of relish which made me squirm with anxiety. I couldn't fully relax until the blades were all safely sheathed, and all fingers were still intact. 

The kids kneaded dough for bread to accompany the mutabal. The main dish was mansaf, the one and only true Jordanian dish. It is a dish of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt called jameed. It is served on a large platter and has its origins in the deserts of Jordan among the Bedouin tribes. You can't come to Jordan without having mansaf, the national dish, and we had not yet had a chance to have it, so we were excited to finally have the chance to try it!

The women who led the cooking class were local women who were employed to help empower them economically. They are the sole bread winners in their families. Sittis in their own right. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Umm Qais

The weather finally thawed enough to get out of town. We drove two hours north to the town of Umm Qais, to explore the ruins of the ancient town of Gadara.

Gadara was a center of Greek culture in the region before being placed under Roman control in the first century B.C. An ancient Roman amphitheater is one of the highlights of the ruins, as are the ancient stone roads, many still showing the ruts of chariot and wagon wheels.  

The winter had brought a surprising amount of rain. There were many points over the summer when I was convinced it would never rain in Amman, but not only did it rain, it even sleeted two weekends in a row (much to my consternation...the weekend Elise was in India, it sleeted the entire weekend, forcing me to remain inside with three rambunctious kids. On Friday, I was relegated to allowing them free reign over the den. They took the pillows off every couch and bed and lined the room, then proceeded to wrestle for the better part of several hours. My only guidance being if someone starts to cry, stop. After a couple hours of board games, I knew they were going to have to let out some steam one way or another). 

The rain had turned the hills to the north of Amman green, much greener than the last time we drove to the north. I've never been to Ireland, but the rolling green hills and stone brought it to mind. 

The weather was perfect. From the archaeological site at Umm Qais, you can see the Sea of Galilee in Israel, the Golan Heights, down into southern Syria, and even the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon on the Syrian-Lebanese border in the distance.

After exploring the site on foot, we had lunch at the Umm Qais Rest House, with fantastic views of the surrounding valleys, not to mention good mezze and mixed grill, and cold Karakale -- the local Jordanian microbrew -- and local white wine. Elise even tried sheesha for the first time!