Trash and Treasure in Old Amman

A dispatch from Jordan's oldest market

By / June 2013

“Get up, son. It’s time to go hunting!” Hearing those words issue from my mouth took me back 35 years, to when my father would wake us on Saturday mornings to go rabbit hunting in rural North Carolina. On this June morning, however, the American South is a world away. Our hunting ground is the al-Balad market in the center of Amman, Jordan. We are not searching for wild game but for something equally elusive: a piece of machinery in bad need of repair. What machine exactly we are not certain; we figure we will know it when we see it. Some fathers and sons bond over baseball. We bond over putting stuff back together.

The Balad is home to thousands of vendors. Some occupy storefronts, others occupy blankets on the sidewalk. Inventory runs the gamut, from kitchen tables and dental drills to 8-milimeter film projectors and used Nike sneakers. Men roll watermelons like bowling balls from trucks to fruit stands. The main drag, Quraish Street, forks into dozens of narrow alleys leading to dimly lit basements crammed with vacuum cleaners, toasters, water pumps, sinks, and hinges. To the casual shopper the Balad can seem like a junkyard, but to the informed buyer angling for a specific part, the market is a godsend, replete with the refreshing breeze that makes Jordan a summer retreat for folks from blazing Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi.

It is 10:30 a.m. when we begin our treasure hunt. The Balad is already humming. Car horns accompany the sing-song chant of Quranic verses and Arab pop music. Merchants add to the noise, yelling to get the attention of would-be customers. Others go a step further, broadcasting sale items over loud speakers using recorded messages that play in a continuous loop. Through this cacophony, like a ship through roiling waters, comes the call to prayer from the Grand Hussein Mosque.

The Balad is the oldest section of Amman. It dates to 6700 BC. During Roman times, the market was a thriving center of trade. During the First World War, the Ottomans transformed it into an Army base. In 1921, after Abdullah I became the first king of Jordan, merchants returned to the Balad, reconstituting it as a place of commerce, entertainment, and religious activity.

Through the meat market we veer. A broad-shouldered butcher donning an ankle-length robe slices marbled slabs from a side of beef hanging on a hook. When I snap a picture, the man starts grumbling. I should have asked permission first, a mistake I will not repeat. Back out on the street we bypass bins of live rabbits, ducks, quail, and baby chicks. A rooster stands by a crate of hens, guarding his darlings to the bitter end, while a customer holds up a rabbit, trying to guess its weight. “This would never be allowed in the US!” I hear a tourist tell his friend.

After a lunch of kebabs from the Cairo Café and a sip of sugar-cane juice (asser asab) too honeyed to finish, we decide to take our treasure quest to a sprawling asphalt parking lot heaped with used furniture. Under a shed in the corner we find our prize, a model SG3 Olympia electric typewriter. Made in 1975, it is an outdated, completely impractical piece of office equipment, but it holds up to our criteria of something old and in need of fixing. The salesmen introduce themselves as Abu Asharat and Abu Hallis. Once we express our interest in the typewriter, the gamesmanship begins.

Abu Hallis sings the machine’s praises, but when he plugs it in to the electrical outlet nothing happens. I ask his price. He starts at 50 Jordanian Dinar (about $70), about five times more than I expect. I lean to my son. “We need to be prepared to walk away from this deal,” I say. Then I make a counter offer. Abu Hallis shakes his head no. Not ready to give up, I engage him in small talk.

He tells me how his parents moved to Amman when he was a child and how he has worked in the Balad for the past six years. I tell him how much we enjoy living in Jordan and that we think the people here are friendly and kind. He offers another price, slightly lower. I counter by adding ten dinar to my original bid. Again Abu Hallis frowns. The small talk recommences. He says I need to try mansaf, a Jordanian dish of lamb and fermented yogurt over rice. When I say we have already had lunch, he compliments my son’s height.

Abu Hallis is sitting on a table. Final price, he says, is 35 dinar. I tell him I will not pay more than 25 then grab my son and start to walk away. Just then, Abu Hallis jumps up and calls after us. “Ok, ok, 25,” he says. And from the grin on his face, I can tell he is thrilled to have gotten that much for a dead typewriter. As lug the machine across the parking, Abu Asharat calls out, “the next time you come we’ll order rice and lamb!”

As we hop into the taxi, my son surprises me, saying how fun it was to watch me barter with the salesman. Soon the Balad disappears from the rearview mirror. We drive up the hill on narrow streets, headed home. I am reminded of an old credit card commercial that goes something like this: Kebabs at the Cairo Café: $10. Antique Typewriter: $30. The fact my teenager thinks I am cool: Priceless!


Danny Wright, an EthnoTraveler contributor, lives and writes in Amman.