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In Jordan, Days Off Are Time for Religion, Relaxation

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Editor’s Note: Education Week Assistant Editor Mary Ann Zehr is on assignment in Jordan to report on the education system of this strategically located country in the Middle East. During her two-week visit, which began April 1, she will also be filing occasional reports for edweek.org.

Jordanians carefully guard their time off from work. So when Friday came, I had no choice but to also take the day off. Friday is the day that Jordanians go to the mosque if they are Muslim, or simply relax. Saturday is also part of their weekend.

I set out from the Hisham Hotel at 8 a.m. to see the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Gerasa, which is called Jerash in modern-day Jordan, and is located about 45 minutes by taxi or bus from Amman. I'd already visited two schools in Jerash earlier in the week, but I hadn't had time to see the ruins.

Gerasa rose to prominence in 333 B.C., during the time of Alexander the Great, according to my Lonely Planet guidebook.

At the bus station, I met René, a man from the Netherlands who is a consultant for a Dutch technology institute, and who, like me, had arrived in Amman a week ago and spent the week working. Also like me, he was adventurous enough to take public transport to Jerash. Most tourists take taxis or hired vehicles. We soon agreed to spend the day touring together.

On the way to Jerash, we compared notes. René had conducted a weeklong workshop during which he trained trainers in the standardization of management systems. I'd spent a week visiting schools and interviewing people about education in Jordan.

The ruins of the ancient Roman city of Gerasa, which is called Jerash in modern-day Jordan.
The ruins of the ancient Roman city of Gerasa, which is called Jerash in modern-day Jordan.
—Photo by Mary Ann Zehr/Education Week

We were both impressed with the Jordanians' thirst for knowledge and their motivation to develop the country. Morale among the people we'd met seemed high, we agreed. We also shared a sense that a quiet revolution was taking place regarding the roles of Jordanian women and their career opportunities. We had both had to set aside some of our prior stereotypes of Muslim women, particularly those who wear traditional dress. We'd both met Jordanians in traditional Islamic dress who were articulate and seemingly good leaders.

At the ruins, we walked on the same orange-yellow stones that the Romans had trod on. We passed a number of large groups of young people relaxing, usually—but not always—segregated by gender. A dozen or so men marched between rows of ancient stone columns carrying a Jordanian flag and singing with great fervor. They stopped to dance choreographed steps that appeared to be a folk dance. In other groups, someone beat a drum while others danced. Girls danced with girls; boys with boys.

Up by the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, men relaxed by a cooler and a 2-foot-high silver coffee pot. In Roman times, the temple was dedicated to the goddess of hunting and fertility. I could smell cardamon seeds simmering in the brewing coffee.

"I could smell cardamon seeds simmering in the brewing coffee." The reporter is served a cup of the local java outside of the Qala'at ar-Rabad castle in Ajlun.
—Photo by Mary Ann Zehr/Education Week

René and I strolled from the hippodrome, a sports field that once was surrounded by seats for 15,000 people, to the ruins of several churches constructed in the 5th century, when Christianity was the major religion here.

We took lots of photos.

Boys pestered us to buy postcards. "Only 2 dinars, madame," they said. (Jordanians say "madame"—accent on the second syllable, as in French.)

Next, René and I hired a ride to Ajlun, about 10 miles from Jerash, to see a castle built by a general in 1184-88, according to my guidebook. It's called Qala'at ar-Rabad Castle and it provided a defense against Crusaders. The men who took us there spoke about 20 words of English between them. I'm now up to about 10 Arabic phrases and words, so conversation was impossible. After negotiating a price in English, I communicated that we wanted to go to the circle in the center of town by drawing a circle in the air, and then told them the Arabic word for restaurant, which I’d looked up in my phrase book. Miraculously, the men dropped us off at a restaurant in the center of town.

In the castle, we explored a maze of rooms constructed out of yellow stone. Equally remarkable was the strength of the wind rushing through the open doorways and windows of the castle. I imagined that a lightweight person could be blown off the mountain on which the castle stood into the olive trees in the valley below.

The castle visit was topped off with a stop for a cup of strong Turkish coffee. A driver of a group of young people, about ages 17 to 20, agreed to give us a ride down the mountain to Ajlun, where we could get a ride back to Amman.

Jordanian
Jordanian "youths introduced themselves to us with big grins." The reporter shared a ride with a group of local students to Ajlun.
—Photo by Mary Ann Zehr/Education Week

The youths introduced themselves to us with big grins. Some crowded into the back of the bus where we were seated. They posed for photos with us. Also, they clapped and sang joyously. "We're singing about the Hashemite Kingdom," one girl told me in English. The full name of their country is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

They invited us to go to Jerash with them and share a meal. But it was time for us to return to Amman.

I had a new appreciation for how fully Jordanians enter into their days off from work or school.

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