Thursday, 1 December 2011

Elling Woman's Hairstyle

Something interesting I found on the web: a reconstruction of an Iron Age Danish bog mummy's hairstyle. (Link to the page. Not everyone finds photos of mummies as fascinating as I do). She is thought to have been hanged as a sacrifice and then buried in the bog.

I have been trying to imagine sacrificing another human being, or being the sacrifice. My imagination fails me. Sacrificing sheep is difficult enough.

I had some extra time this morning and gave the hairstyle a try. Anyone not that interested in braided hairstyles will find the rest of this extremely boring.

I started a french braid at my brow and picked up sections of hair until just above my ears, then continued it as a plain english braid separate from the rest of my hair until the nape of my neck.

(Elling Woman did not have a french braid, but a plain english braid will not contain my flyaway hair).

I divided the lower part of my hair into three sections and added a section to each strand of the braid at the nape of my neck, then braided down to the end and tied it off.

Then I pulled the tail of the braid up and brought it through the space between the braid and the flat hair on the back of my head. Wrap around and pull through again, repeat several times to form a bun, tuck the end in under the rest of the bun.  It will stay without any fasteners, but I didn't want to risk the braid coming loose and falling out of my hijab.

The diagram shows separate strands of hair braided together, but hair is not rope. It does not behave that way unless twisted, and it would be nigh on impossible to twist all those strands of hair and keep them twisted and separate while braiding.

There was a lengthy debate on a hair forum I read about how to recreate this (some people have a lot of time on their hands - I may be one of them).

A few people continued the english braid to the end without adding more hair at the nape of the neck, made two rope braids (created by twisting two sections of hair together) out of the lower part of their hair, braided the three braids together as though they were sections of hair, then made a bun. It looked good, and seems a more likely method than the one described on the website I linked to.

The long tail of hair hanging down from the mummy's bun may be there because the bun unravelled, not because she wore it that way.

Some forum members had recreations of Viking bone hairsticks, which they fastened the bun with to prevent it from unravelling. I used a blunt #2 pencil.

This style worked well enough, but it's probably not something I would do again. There are quicker and simpler ways to make a braided bun.

(UPDATE April 2014: I have never repeated this hairstyle, but it's still one of my most-visited posts.  I'm glad other people are getting some use out of this.)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Word of the day: zanikh زنخ - rancid

A couple of my med-student flatmates used this word several times in conversation, with particular emphasis on the 'ikkkhhhh.' I wasn't paying attention to what they were saying, but this word flew back and forth and caught my ear. I have an irritating habit of whipping out my little notebook every time a hear a new word, interrupting the conversation, and asking everyone in the room if they have a synonym in their own dialects. They almost always do. They tease me that I'll never learn all the dialects, and they're right, I won't. Every person I meet speaks a different one.

I think words that describe something gross should have a 'kh' somewhere. There's wasikh (dirty), and kherbana (busted, wrecked when describing object, or rotten, when describing something edible). People draw out the 'kh' sound to show their disgust.

My friend's son, at a year old, would stand in his crib and say 'ikkkhhhhh,' especially if he knew he was doing something he knew he shouldn't be. It was one of the first distinctly Arabic sounds he learned, I think because he heard it so much. Whenever someone caught him rooting through the garbage or the diaper pail, they'd say 'ikkhhh,' and pull him away. Laughing when he said it back didn't help keep him out of the dirty diapers.

I've heard badly behaved people described as having 'rancid blood.' As one of my flatmates put it:

نقوله (دمه زنخ) عن بني أدم عندما حركاته مش منيح

Friday, 4 November 2011


I woke up slowly on this Jumua' morning two days before Eid. It had to be late, but the light filtering through the drapes was mellow, and the air was still cool. I was half-aware of a strange sound coming from outside. Pink patta patta pink patta patta pink plonk.

Rain. The first rain we've had all year. And a grumble of thunder, and irate drivers leaning on their horns.

The little stone courtyard at the bottom of the stairs was flooded, an inches-deep swimming pool and graveyard for stranded cockroaches. They're not very good swimmers, it turns out.

The leaves on the fig and green lemon trees, dusty, brown-edged, and wilted yesterday, were crisp, green, and vibrant.

This is better than Eid, better than Christmas. People who haven't been able to water their crops or wash their clothes or bathe properly or drink clear water for nearly a year just got the best gift God could give them.

Not a gift we're prepared for, however. The sound of sirens and honking reminds me that the roads are certain to be flooded. It rains so rarely here that there are no drainage systems to speak of. Many people with ground floor flats will be sloshing through a few inches of cold water and wishing they hadn't bothered putting the winter carpets down. I don't have any clothes appropriate for going out in the rain, and most working-class people won't either. All the people living in tents will be cold and miserable for the next few months. Some of them will die, children and the elderly and even young adults, struck down suddenly by ordinary illnesses that could be easily treated, given access to medical care and better housing.

As mixed a blessing as rain is, it is still a blessing, and cause to celebrate, for those fortunate enough to have dry-ish houses, warm sweaters, and good friends this Eid.

Monday, 15 August 2011


It is wonderful to be tall.

I stand on a broken chunk of cement and reach up into the highest branches of a fig sapling sprouting through a crack in the buckled asphalt of the exercise yard.

On the other side of high concrete walls and rusted barbed wire, factories hum and whir and pump black smoke into the sky, obscuring the stars.

Unseen among the rocks and refuse of the wadi, someone pounds out a rhythm on an empty plastic tub.

Indoors, girls shriek and laugh shrilly, clink cutlery on plates, scrape plastic lawn furniture across bare stone floors. Fluorescent lights glow pink through drawn curtains striped by iron bars.

The exercise yard is still and empty; no one sees as my fingers search through rustling leaves in the dark, gently squeezing smooth round fruit, twisting ripe figs free.

Growing unasked for and uncared for, they are small and green and dusty. I eat them without bothering to wash them, standing beside the scrawny tree, and they burst in my mouth, warm and moist and sweet. The air is so thick with dust and pollution that eating a little more grime makes no difference.

I search out more figs and eat until my mouth is tingly and fuzzy, as though I had eaten a honeybee.

Figs bought in the souq in the light of day could never be so sweet.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


I learned crunchily
While drinking tea with fresh mint
Look out for small snails

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Christmas Chocolate

A student went around the living room one evening offering everyone something out of a box. Several people accepted a piece, took a bite, and then looking like they’d expected lamb and gotten overcooked mutton fat. I asked the student what was in the box, and she told me that it was special fancy chocolate her brother in Ottawa had sent to their family in Saudi Arabia.

I read “Life Brand Dark Chocolate Cranberry Pistachio Bark,” on the lid and smiled.

“Do you know it?” The student asked me. “It’s supposed to be a very good brand, isn’t it?”

“It’s popular,” I said, trying not to laugh, and accepted a piece. It was strong and bitter and sweet, and the only chocolate I’ve had in a year and a half that tasted like chocolate used to.

Buying half-price drugstore holiday chocolate in the aftermath of Christmas was one of my favourite traditions as an adult in Canada, a bit of sweetness after the long shifts at work, bitter fights, bad behaviour, and drunkenness of a holiday I didn’t believe in and would rather have skipped.

I don’t think I would have had the gall to send it to relatives overseas and tell them it was a Canadian specialty, but in truth it is.

Saturday, 26 February 2011


A windstorm comes out of the desert, bending the few scrawny pine trees parallel to the ground and howling around buildings. One whole end of the college is open to the outside, and the wind rushes in and down corridors, rattling windows and sucking at doors. If doors are left open, and people never seem to learn to close them, they will slam them so hard that the handles fall off, sometimes hard enough that the brittle wood shatters. The narrow stone stairwells become blocked for several stories with lemming-like students, every one in turn trying to force the handle-less door open, finally deciding to double back and find a different route to their lecture, and having to shove their way through a mass of other students all going through the same process. 

The wind carries dust and grit from the desert, and pelts it against everything in reach. It drums against the windows, sands the paint off cars, and coats the cabbages and radishes in the farm plot next door with a layer of sandy brown. The wind buffets struggling pedestrians, tearing at their billowing abayas and thobes and scarves. Everyone who doesn’t wear niqab shields their face from the dust with a scarf or a book.

After a few days of howling wind and blowing sand, I wake up in the night to the sound of raindrops tapping on the windows, and rushing water. It is raining hard somewhere, and torrents of muddy water come gushing out of the desert and into the wadi, water turned the colour of chocolate milk by the soil it carries from far away. I listen to the little river behind the school roaring, the wind howling, and the pine branches rustling, and I remember the crashing waves, and the wind in fir trees, and the unearthly silence of falling snow in my former home, far away across oceans and continents, and I fall back asleep.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Photos from Jerash

I don't know what to write about, so let's have some photos. I must have several hundred just of Jerash, but these are some of my favourites.

I visited the excavated Roman ruins at Jerash several times last year, although we only actually got past the front gate once.

Here's Hadrian's Gate at the entrance to the site, built for the visit of the emperor Hadrian in 130 AD.

Some of the artifacts that have been discovered. The site has been occupied for around five thousand years; it was conquered by Rome in 63 BC, and mostly destroyed by earthquake in 749 AD. The monuments visible have all been dug up and reconstructed; there is scaffolding and a pile of stone blocks behind Hadrian's Gate, as it is still being assembled.

Most employees at historic sites don't mind having their pictures taken.

A man selling trinkets at the entrance to the South Theatre.

This 'gladiator' seemed to be having a good time striking fierce poses with his sword for the pretty foreign students.

The Hippodrome has mock Roman military demonstrations, chariot races, half-nude middle-aged Arab guys very earnestly trying to sword fight to the death, etc.

It's a big site. The air here is always more or less hazy, but you can (hopefully) see that the Cardo (north-oriented paved road bordered by pillars) winds its way all the way up the hill to the left. I was delighted the one time I was able to walk all the way through it, although I was the only one who did.

The little souvenir souq that the Turkish study groups often never leave. I just don't see the interest in it, but then I dislike shopping and knick-knacks in general. To each their own.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Rain at Last

Jordan is mostly a very dry place. It doesn't have any major bodies of water to draw from, so it mostly depends on rainfall, which isn't that plentiful in a country that's mostly desert. What about the Jordan River? I've seen it a number of times, and from the hills it's hard to tell that it is a river, there's so little water in it.

Back in November, the Jordanian government called for people to fast for three days and then gather all over the country to pray salaat al-istisqa, the prayer for rain. There were posters everywhere, and a group prayer was held in the paved yard of my college. The rain did come, I don't recall exctly when, but shortly after the prayer. Some people will say that it was going to rain eventually anyways and praying has no effect, but personally I believe that Allah heard our prayers, forgave us, and send the rain.

Rain in the desert after nearly a year of dust and dryness is a miraculous thing to witness. The water has nowhere to go, so streets and many houses flood; the whole town is shut down and classes are cancelled, very much like the effect a few inches of snow has in a certain pathetically and chronically unprepared city in Canada.

Despite the problems it causes, children stand rapt and watch the raindrops fall, and adults rejoice. I was standing under the eaves of the masjid, sheltering from the rain while waiting for it to open, and a woman joined me. She remarked happily about how lovely the weather was, and I thought for a moment that she was joking. In Canada, pouring down rain is ordinary and dreary, but here it's a miracle that only happens a few times a year.

When it finally rains, it really rains. Water comes rushing down out of the higher desert and fills the wadis that were formally used as footpaths, playgrounds, and garbage disposal with torrents of chocolately brown water. It happens very suddenly, and I wonder every year if anyone got caught in the wadi when the water came crashing down.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Tombs of the Sahaba

The tomb of one of the many Sahaba who died in Jordan during the Amwaas plague outbreak in the year 18 after the Hijrah (639-640 AD). Unfortunately, I have visited a lot of their tombs and can't remember who this one belonged to. All I can make out for sure from the photo is that he was an Ansari (one of the Muslims of Medinah who helped the Muslims from Mecca after their migration to Medinah).

An estimated 25, 000 people died in the plague outbreak, including many of the Sahaba who had liberated balad ash-shams from Roman rule (or conquered it, depending on your perspective). Many people don't know that these Sahaba died of plague, and not in battle.

This tomb is not very fancy, as they go, but most of the ones I have seen are huge affairs of polished marble, golden cages, and embroidered velvet. The bravery, faith, and sacrifices of these men who died so far from home should be remembered, but erecting shrines to them seems like too much to me. It's not in keeping with the Islamic burial practices, in which the corpse is wrapped in a plain white sheet and quickly buried in the ground, to absorb back into the earth from which it was made.

I believe this was the masjid in which the tomb above was located although it may have been a different masjid holding the tombs of other Sahaba. I took the pictures last spring, and only recently had them developed.

I found it lovely, simple, and peaceful, down in the Jordan valley where things are actually green some of the time, although far richer than most of this dusty land.

It bothers me that so much is spent to glorify men dead nearly a millenia and a half, when most people here work so hard and live in poverty and difficult conditions, with little hope of anything better.