Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Music, dance, and shisha

Before the lights of the King's Highway stretched before us in two perfectly parallel lines winding through Jordan's hills, before 120km/h winds rushed through open car windows to meet with blaring hip-hop and R&B, before loud, tipsy Arabs stuck their heads out the windows, and long before finally canceling plans to visit Syria and 2am showers, the night was filled with heaps of food, live music, and lots of dancing.

Harat Jdoudna (which loosely means 'neighborhood of my ancestors') is a restaurant serving traditional Jordanian food in a beautiful outdoor setting. Tables can be found in the ivy-covered and tree-shaded courtyard and courtyard terraces of an old house whose walls and floors contain stones and columns 'scavenged' from the Roman highway which once ran through the town of Madaba barely 200 metres from where the restaurant stands today.

Arriving at the restaurant around 8:30pm, the tables are nearly empty. The courtyard is quiet. The tables are set. There is a constant breeze, and the air is warm and humid but not hot and sticky. Ivy creeps up walls built of local stone. Grape vines entwine themselves around the long branches of sturdy fig trees, creating a green canopy offering both shade and atmosphere. The courtyard is calm. Prepared. Waiting.

Tables slowly fill, and by 9:30 not an empty seat can be seen. Drinks arrive along with shisha, a traditional Arab water-pipe (also known as 'hooka'), and soon clouds of strawberry and fruit flavored smoke swirl up from more than a dozen places in the courtyard, mixing occasionally with cigar and the ever-present cigarette smoke. A middle-aged Arab man takes a seat at a keyboard set up at one end of the courtyard, and music soon fills the air, setting the tone for the evening.

Around 10:00 the food begins to arrive. Within moments, the long, bare wooden table is covered in literally dozens of dishes - salads, dips, and foods of all kinds. Waiters appear with baskets of bread which disappear as quickly as they're brought. Hommus, mushrooms cooked with rosemary and olive oil, rocket salad, traditional Jordanian salads, fried and grilled goat cheese, eggplant dishes, stuffed mushrooms, and a dozen other types of food are passed around and heaped onto plates. The noise level doesn't dim for a moment, however - talk and laughter continue unabated along with the music and shisha smoke.

The entertainer fills the evening air with traditional Jordanian music, and conversations are consistently left unfinished as the entire courtyard claps in time to the music and sings along at the top of their voices. A small group of dancers gathered in front of the musician - a bride and groom celebrating their wedding - are joined by more and more people. The other dancers surround the bride as the keyboard mimics the sounds that a dozen instruments probably would have made a century ago. The musician picks up a local string instrument, called an 'oud,' and adds that into the music as the dancers begin a traditional Jordanian dance.

Sometime around 11:00 the main course arrives, just when non-Arabs believe the meal to be over. However, the food is made to wait as seemingly half the people in the courtyard move onto the makeshift dance floor, hips and arms moving in time to the music. Eventually, the dancers return to their food and once again shisha smoke fills the air.

The courtyard doesn't begin to empty until around midnight, and by 12:30 the majority of the guests have left, still humming or singing, full of good food, exhausted and energized at the same time. This is when bills are paid, cars are loaded, and a dozen wrong turns made before headlights find their way to the King's Highway and the perfectly parallel lights stretching into the distance.

It does not take long to realize, this is Jordan.

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