In light of the Holy month of Ramadan, we wanted to witness the unique and captivating experience of visiting the Old City of Amman, Downtown, both before and after the sunset – the time of day Muslim Jordanians break their fast. Essentially, we sought to capture the soul of the city at its quietest, the time of fasting, and at its most dynamic, after the breaking of the fast. In Jordan and across the Middle East, Ramadan is a unique time when day and night trade places, and evening becomes the bearer of the city’s joys and vivacity. As you will come to discover, this stark contrast in the city’s spirit is represented by the turning on of Ramadan lights at sunset, the suddenly crowded streets, the scent of cooking at every corner, and the long nights of shisha, celebrations or card games that last till dawn.
To visit downtown Amman, or ‘Wast el Balad’ as locals know it, we highly recommend using the route we took for our Ramadan tour: start on the cobble-stoned Rainbow street with its plentiful souvenir shops, indie cafes and charming restaurants…
…make your way Downtown for a more energetic and bustling market experience…
…and finish off at the Roman Amphitheatre steps, a majestic monument manifesting the city’s ancient roots.
Along the way, don’t forget to drop by Habiba for one of the most infamous desserts in the region, known as Knafeh; but during this Ramadan season, make sure you save the mouth-watering taste of Knafeh for a post-Iftar treat!
The Road to Downtown
Rainbow Street, normally the city’s infamous tourist-haven, was unusually silent with only a few passers-by…it was under these subdued circumstances that we were able to notice its architectural brilliance glistening under the afternoon sun.
Traces of Ramadan were still visible and swayed over us in the form of colourful lights and lanterns, typical at this time of year. Moon-shaped lights are the most desired street ornaments in Ramadan, as these represent the first crescent of a new moon marking the beginning of Ramadan.
As we stepped foot in downtown, we felt the energy heighten. Even the exhaustion of an empty stomach didn’t stop the persistent vendor, local craftsman or restaurant owner from going about their daily business.
As we witnessed cooks preparing the Ramadan feasts, vendors calling at bargained prices and people rushing to buy the best fruits and vegetables before sunset, we decided to find out what Ramadan meant to the locals. Here is a sample of what we gathered…
“What does Ramadan mean to you?”
Ramadan is embodied by the spirit of coming together, bonding and even reconciling with family members and friends. In the words of one welcoming restaurant owner: “We have a culture of inviting relatives over to break the fast together…We fast, we pray and we eat together. Everything is done together”. This philosophy was echoed by a solitary Thobe shop owner: “I used to come into work and have lunch alone, behind the counter, or at delis nearby, but now I eat with friends and family everyday at their homes and restaurants. It’s a chance to call up the ones you love and to prioritise them in your life again.”
The second theme that resonated through our discussions was benevolence and giving back to the community. As the local bookshop owner put it: “you come to realize your blessings. As you crave food and drink, you start empathizing with the poor and less fortunate who don’t have access to these basic needs. You come to appreciate the value of one drop of water, and when it finally touches your throat at sunset…wow…I can’t explain it. Its like if you lived in a desert and suddenly found a cold lake…”.
A third and prominent theme was religion and spirituality, most eloquently explained by that philosophising bookshop owner: “For non-believers, they may laugh at you for choosing to suffer or think it’s a kind of challenge but it’s not. Its about giving meaning to your life, it is the only thing between you and your God. People do not know whether you are fasting or not. The act of fasting is not about impressing other people. It is a selfless form of sacrifice purely for God.”
Others described the inner change invoked by Ramadan. One retired straggler, at his regular dining spot in a downtown piazza, told us: “Fasting cleanses your inside, your entire body and spirit – it teaches you to be kind, selfless and patient with people, food and drink. By the end of the month, you ideally transition into a different being, a more calm disciplined individual.”
Finally, Ramadan is also about temptations and treats. “Zaki!” (or “tasty!”) was all the Thobe Store Owner needed to tell us to describe the assortment of delicacies, food and deserts offered during the Ramadan season. On a more comedic note, when asking one sassy street vendor what Ramadan meant for him, he answered: “Why…meeting beautiful women like you”
With hindsight to our experience, the early standstill at Rainbow Street reflected the scale of the country’s collective sacrifice for a greater spiritual purpose. We were impressed with the people’s cohesion, which trickled down to post-Iftar activities, like praying together or dancing together to old Arabic classics. We experienced this sense of community first-hand… every person we approached practiced a different profession and lifestyle, from the enthusiastic restaurant owner to the humble bookstore owner to the sassy street vendor, yet without exception, each of them invited us to eat with them, even those with noticeably little to offer.
By exploring downtown Amman and talking to the people that animate it, we’d like to think that we somewhat discovered the true meaning of Ramadan. Through the words of the locals, we learnt that underneath the splendour of the night lights and the comforts of family gatherings lies a deeper purpose – to experience a plethora of antithetical emotions all in the same day, and by going through these extreme emotions and conditions, one realizes the vice in gluttony and virtue in patience and benevolence.
This recurring theme – the coexistence of dualities inside each of us – became all the more evident as the day progressed as we came to encounter:
the hungry and the satiated,
the impatient and the disciplined,
the angry and the forgiving,
the lonely and the invited,
suffering and gratitude
weakness and inner-strength,
pain and empathy,
solitude and friendship…