The thickening layer of brown on the horizon is a signal of summer. The unsettled dust from the endless desert east of Amman seems to float higher and higher, not content until reaching the sun itself. Today’s breezes don’t hold the same force as those of mid-May. The lungs of the atmosphere are slowly tiring, it seems, slowing running out of their reserves of cooling breath. We have passed 100 degrees nearly every day for five days, and in the evening the tick-tick-tick of a rusted fan is the only thing that helps me sleep comfortably.
Drive down from Amman and the breezes fade into a hot silence. By the Dead Sea and in the Jordan Valley, temperatures are beginning to climb so high that intrepid goats and camels are the only things that dare move around during the early afternoon. Sleeping in Wadi Rum a few weekends ago, I remember waking up to what felt like a hairdryer blowing on my face, only to realize it was just the 7am heat squeezing through the cracks of the flapping tent walls.
In the desert one gets used to the sound of a tarp flapping in the wind, to the surge of light and hot air that rushes in behind any breeze that lifts tent walls. Nearly every outdoor café, every home, every hotel has a canopy, a fabric roof of some kind that keeps out the sun’s rays and those extra fifteen degrees they bring. Still full of light, and still too hot, the world under the desert tarps is a world I’ve come to know, a world with its own vicissitudes and attitudes.
From above, most of Amman is a monochromatic maze, dotted with green trees, some purple springtime flowers, and the bright yellow and white of thousands of taxicabs. In this aerial view, there are a few noticeable aberrations, a few mold-breakers that interrupt the sandstone mass. The Amman Gate towers stand tall and unfinished, their bright blue glass reflecting the sun at all times of day. Another spot on the map is the King Abdullah mosque, with its bight teal dome. And then there is Abdali, a grungy diamond-shaped slab of pavement, littered with bags, cars, and busses bound for the north. It in some way reminds me of Geneva’s massive litter box in Plainpalais, just without the gypsies. Abdali is nothing special from above. Most of the time it is entirely empty, until, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, slowly, slowly, slowly, orange tarps engulf the pavement below for just 36 hours per week, transforming what was desolate into one of the city’s most colorful and boisterous sensory displays. This is the Abdali market, a dense hot mess with a short life span.
As you enter the Abdali market, this fabricated world beneath an orange sky, it seems as if the hazy tarp roof stretches for eternity in all directions. In this weekly market, Goodwill excretes all that the West left undigested. Kitchen appliances find new adoptive parents, and even dismembered baby dolls and fantastical Chinese toys have a second chance at love. You can find anything in Abdali, in what must be among the world’s largest hand-me-down centers.
Under the orange sky, voices and smells are trapped. As women shop for pants, for scarves, for shoes, and as scores of shabab loiter, rummaging through used Nikes and knock-off Lacoste, they walk through the scents of mint, of corn, of coffee, of rubber, of body odor, of diesel–each scent trapped and fighting for a way out from under the tarp, from under the canopy that opens oh-so rarely and only when a big enough wind blows to open up a sliver to the real sky above.
I have observed Abdali market at different times—when it first opens, when it is winding down, right after Friday prayers, and even at 2am when the artificial lights cast a nauseating orange color throughout the hot and stuffy aisles. I wouldn’t go to Abdali to brush up on my Arabic; it is an auction floor full of machine-gun slang. I wouldn’t go to enjoy a Thursday night of shopping; it is totally overwhelming. Another world, another sky, Abdali abounds with things that you forgot you needed and the clothes that others needed to forget.
The Abdali market is a must-see for travelers to Amman. It is a flower that blooms by night, an artificial world where the wind and the sun cannot enter. I continue to get lost in it every time I visit, and I now have more kitchen appliances than I actually need. Such is its hypnotic effect.
While I could go on endlessly about Abdalis’ piles of faded Little League shirts from Ohio, the rack of pit-stained soccer jerseys, and the tank-tops from First Church Bible Camp, what most impresses me about Abdali is the human effort that goes into creating such a short-lived phenomenon. Dozens of men work all night on Wednesday to set up the metal scaffolding that holds up the orange tarps and that protects the truckloads of shoes from the dusty streets. Less than forty-eight hours later, they take it down, leaving behind nothing except the diamond-shaped slab of cracked pavement that has to wait another week for the foot traffic it craves, and for the orange sky that blocks out the sun.