To get to Darat al Funun ask the concierge at your hotel to write the name in Arabic so that your taxi will drop you somewhere in the right neighbourhood. After getting out of the cab, ask directions from the first person you see – a man carrying an umbrella and a newspaper. Show him the slip of paper where the concierge has written your destination in careful, looping script. This person will point down the street. He will gesture to the right and to the left. His hand moves like a fish in the air. Make your hand into a smaller fish and repeat the movement. He will smile and you will smile. You will all shake hands and say things that ring with gratitude.
The man’s directions will take you to the post office. Look back down the street, wonder if you’ve made a right when you should have made a left. Did you miss a street? Look up at the post office as if the sign might have magically changed. Someone will see your quizzical face and stop to offer help. He is a youngish man with a clean-shaven face and a soft voice. He holds his cigarette out away from you as he leans in to look at the paper from the concierge. You show him the guidebook and point to the photo of Darat al Funun. He nods, takes a quick drag off his cigarette and exhales the smoke slowly into the blue sky.
“You must follow exactly,” he says. He points to the right toward a traffic circle. “Go right,” he says. “And then left to the stairs. There will be three sets of stairs. The third set of stairs are yours.” He asks you to repeat the directions and you do. “Exactly,” he says.
This is how I found Darat al Funun on the last day of a two-week trip to Jordan. I was travelling with my stepmother, Carla, and our friends Sarah and Michael. Prior to this morning, we had set out on three other occasions to find the place our guidebook called a ‘cultural haven.’ We were intrigued by the idea of Arabic art, 6th-century Byzantine ruins, gardens and a restored 1920s residence. All this plus a café, which promised sweet, black tea with mint and a view of Amman.
The last day of a journey is often when I am the most homesick. It’s the day I miss the voices of my son and daughter, the arms of my husband and suddenly yearn for my own soft bed and the clean white tile of my shower. On the last day of a journey, I’ve worn everything in my suitcase until it is soft and limp and a little smelly. It’s the day when I long for a pair of ruby slippers. Carla and I and Sarah travel together often and so we’ve noticed a kind of desperate and homesick pattern. On our last day in Myanmar, we ate a terrible hamburger and an even worse pizza. On the last day in Lima, we were stuck in traffic for two hours when we tried to get from the airport to the sea for ceviche.
On our last day in Jordan, we were determined not to succumb. Sarah opted for a day in the spa. She scheduled a steam and scrub and manicure while Carla, Michael and I hopped in and out of taxis and eventually set off on foot up and down the hilly streets of Amman.
“Darat al Funun,” I said. “The Brigadoon of Jordan.”
The neighbourhood was quiet and seemingly filled with artists. We passed a window filled with paper flowers. Next door was a shuttered gallery called ‘Why Not Sneeze Art Space.’ The bright flowers and blue lettering on the sign stood out against the limestone buildings. Nearly every building in Amman is built of limestone and as a result, the whole city is grey and white. The blocks share the colouring of the flocks of pigeons kept in rooftop cages and the stray cats that roam the streets below. Against this neutral background, there is the blue sky, garish pink dyed ice cream cones and mounds of turmeric and sumac in the spice market.
Following the spoken directions, we came first to the circle. We’d grown accustomed to the uneven cobblestones and to the curbs that changed in altitude by the foot. We walked with the nimble feet of the familiar. This place had become, in the short span of two weeks, a kind of home. On our first day, we’d been shocked to watch our guide spoon one, two, three, four tiny spoons of sugar into his cup of tea – now we scooped and stirred and savoured that last slurp of silty sweetness. We’d begun to use a pita to shuttle dollops of hummus with olive oil and za’atar into our mouths for breakfast and to break off tiny chunks of halvah to add sweet to the salt.
We walked right and then left. We passed one set of stairs, which seemed more like a steep and jagged crevice. We passed a second set of stairs, a sunning spot for the neighbourhood cats. Above us was the sound of pigeon wings, the smell of a cigarette drifted from an upstairs window. We weren’t talking much. We’d grown accustomed to each other. We had shifted to accommodate our separate rhythms, but we’d developed a shared rhythm as well.
The third set of stairs was brightly painted and below, we saw the shadows of leaves on a wall.
“Exactly,” we said in one breath and together, we took the stairs.
The first thing I saw when I passed through the iron gate into the garden of Darat al Funun, was a troll. A plastic troll. It had a green shock of hair sticking straight up and a naked round belly shiny in the sunshine. Without even touching the thing, I could feel the cottony hair on my cheek, the hard plastic toes against my teeth. I used to have a bunch of these trolls. I don’t know what has become of them. They were probably hand-me-downs from my mom’s sister, Jennifer. She was the youngest sister and only nine years older than me and so I wound up with a lot of her things. I inherited her leather mini-skirt and winter coat with only slightly matted fur cuffs. I got ribbed turtlenecks and cotton tights and once, a bag of padded training bras that I spent hours inspecting in the privacy of my own room. The troll dolls came in a variety of sizes. I let them hang out with my Barbie (also handed down) in mansions I constructed on my floor by opening hardback picture books so that the covers formed rooms.
My friend Michael gave a little squeal of joy as he saw the troll. This squeal caught the attention of two young people with backpacks and cell phones. They were taking selfies with the troll. We smiled and said hello and they said hello and we all took some photos of the troll. The troll was completely at home in the garden of Darat al Funun, just as the trolls were completely at home in my book mansions.
I didn’t know where I was. There was grass and there were columns. The ancient columns were Byzantine, from the 6th century. The troll was circa 1972. We four travellers had been minted in the years between 1948 and 1968. Where was I?
I found my trolls in a drawer in the basement laundry room of my grandmother’s house in Rapid City, South Dakota. In this basement, I felt close to my father because on the walls of the common area, he’d painted a giant mural. A forest, dark and mysterious. Maybe it was the black light bulbs preferred by my aunts, but the details were hard to make out. There was a huge tree, the roots moving in and out of the soil as though threaded through a needle. Green-bottle-coloured leaves and vines skittered and slithered like living things. A pale sliver of moon lit the indigo sky and frosted the tips of the grass. The wall was alive because my father had painted it. I could see him using the lip of the acrylic paint tube as a brush, laying on colour thick as frosting ribbons. He’d pressed the open mouth of the tube right onto the wall, making wet dots that dried into sharp points. My father had been dead for some years when my grandmother decided to put up wallpaper in the basement. She used a butter knife to scrape all the dots of paint off the wall.
The main buildings of Darat al Funun, built in the 1920s, were perfectly situated on the hillside. Tucked down below the lip of the surface street, they perched on the face of the incline in a way that made it seem as if nothing else could exist. From this hidden vantage it was possible to see the buildings of Amman climbing up and down the city, crooked as teeth.
We entered the first building through a simple, wood-framed screened door. The walls were thick as adobe and the plaster smooth to touch. We thought ‘Rancho de Chimayo’ and ‘El Rancho de las Golondrinas,’ the ancient places of our shared New Mexico stories. On the walls were paintings of women, all bright colour, thick lines, paint I could almost feel against my eyes. The walls were newly finished, coated evenly with white, but here and there, was a square of the original paint, sanded down to reveal the layers and lives. These squares seemed to move like static on a television screen, mint and pink and cream and azure vibrating together. I tried to take a photo of these squares, but trapped by my small lens, they were flat. It was the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee that animated these colours; the slight breeze, the sound of a screen door hinge stretching wide that imparted movement. It was the fact that it was our last day in this country and that by this point, we could walk together without speaking.
The house was a gallery, but it was also a house. In the office, the glass top of the desk was cluttered with family photos in pedestrian frames, pens in a complicated marble stand – the kind of pens you give or receive as a commemoration. There was a small clock with a white face and a rolodex filled with cards.
The desk belonged to Khalid Shoman. On the wall, there was a photo of him taken at Petra. He wore a white track jacket with red and blue stripes on the sleeves and had a bit of a belly and a smile that seems to be the by-product of a laugh. In this photo, Khalid Shoman seemed satisfied by his life. He’d done what he could do and was taking some delight in the country of his birth. He seemed to be the kind of man who might be pleased by a piece of cake or the sight of his granddaughter running in the yard. Khalid Shoman seemed like he might have been a good person with whom to share a laugh.
Khalid Shoman was a banker. His wife, Suha Shoman, was an artist. We discovered these facts slowly. The desk had been left in its place as a memorial to Khalid Shoman. The photos held in simple plastic frames on the wall were hung in his honour. The leather chair behind the desk seemed as if it might be warm. He might have just stepped out. We felt his presence because we were surrounded by his personal possessions. Pens. Eyeglasses. Photos of friends and family. We saw him as a grandfather, a fisherman, a banker. And we knew him.
A newspaper article under glass offered the only clear explanation of where we were. Dar Khalid, the article tells us, is “not really a museum and not a shrine” but an “inhabited lodging” and had been curated by Suha Shoman who believed that “anybody who does his work proudly and with love should be honoured and remembered.” A pen. Eyeglasses. A photo of a fishing trip. These are the things that had been saved. These are the things that vibrate.
In the first wave of cleaning after my father’s death, we saved one pair of his paint-smeared Levis. We saved his journals and his letters. We saved the Exacto knives he used for whittling and the box of coloured pencils he used to draw. We gave away most of his clothes: cowboy shirts and Hawaiian shirts and puffy down vests. My brother took the big sheepskin coat with the silver arrows sewn onto the lapels and Carla saved a worn chambray shirt with pearl snaps.
On the first Christmas after my father’s death, Carla gave me his Buffalo Dancer bolo tie. Nearly fourteen years later, it’s still in the same lidded basket, black cords coiled like snakes. For a long time, I wished I’d kept a pair of his jeans. Or a shirt. Or something that had touched his body, held the shape of him. Now I see the shape of his hand in my own when it rests on the steering wheel of my car and, on most days, that is enough.
We didn’t really need to clean out my father’s closets. Because Dad had turned our home into the roadside attraction known as ‘Tinkertown Museum,’ we might have left everything exactly where it was. But a museum is curated and we needed to do something to make it clear that we were going to move forward with our lives.
My baby son, in his bucket car seat and my niece in her sparkly tights were the clearest and most urgent signs of life, and as we packed and sorted, their needs pulled us from nostalgic wanderings and anchored us in the real world. It is difficult to dither over the saving of one pair of jeans or two pairs when a hungry baby is crying for food. The task of jamming a dozen shirts into a bag for Goodwill is made easier when a two-year-old is clinging to your leg. Not that we didn’t spend a lot of time laughing and telling stories. We found the furry skirt and sequined tube top Carla used to wear for special occasions. We found letters from my father to his parents, and one he’d written to a former lover. We packed as many garbage bags into the truck as we could and then went out for enchiladas.
I don’t know if Suha Shoman saved one of Khalid’s suits or all of them. Perhaps his white track jacket still hangs in her closet. Perhaps she keeps his fishing tackle box under her bed. How we deal with our own loneliness and missing and sorrow is a private thing even when we’ve chosen to put much of our lives on display.
“I need a snack,” Michael said. “There’s coffee and a cute boy making sandwiches.” Michael had been taking photos of the beautiful men of Jordan.
A few minutes later, we had settled into the metal chairs around the little café table. We were all tired. Our steps were slow, our thoughts random. We were already part of the way home. We were at Darat Al Funun, but we were also planning our departure and letting the responsibilities and routines of our regular lives begin to re-materialize. Our late flight was too far from dawn to be considered true morning. We hadn’t done the math of time zones and didn’t plan to. Long distance travel involves a willing suspension of reason that I always enjoy on the outbound – and dread a little on the way home.
Carla and Michael and I ate olives and pita dipped in oil and herbs. We talked about packing and organizing our souvenirs. I don’t, as a rule, bring home much, but I had a dress for my daughter and a model of Petra for my son. At the Dead Sea, I’d purchased a string of red coral beads from an elegantly flirtatious gentleman. Every time I wear them, I’ll think of this big man in his well-made suit, of the way he laughed and flattered and sighed. I’ll think of how we played this game only for the pleasure of hearing our words, of entertaining our friends. It was deliciously freeing to know that the end result of our banter would only be the sale of a necklace.
“You get the solo room tonight,” Carla said. “You need it the most. Savour the last of your time.”
“But you have stuff, too,” I began.
“No it’s done. I’ve moved in with Sarah,” she said. “Besides, she’s gonna need a fire under her to get out in time.”
I didn’t need a fire under me. I was thinking of my husband and my children. I was missing them. Across the world, my family was sleeping. I was awake. I blinked in the sun and looked out across the city to where men were gathered on rooftops to train the pigeons.
The day before, I’d seen these men and their birds up close. Our friend Huthiefa had explained that years ago, the men who kept pigeons sometimes got into fights over a particular bird. Sometimes, for one reason or another, a bird leaves one flock to join another.
“At one time,” Huthiefa said, “there were many fights. These men were not good men. Now, though, it’s different.”
I had stood on the sidewalk beneath the men and their birds. I had heard their muffled conversation, a laugh, a shout. I had seen the plump bodies of the birds as they rose into the air. From the patio at Darat al Funun, the birds were small as confetti, but I could still feel the rustle of wings and the sensation of lifting off and landing.
“To our last day,” Carla said.
We raised our glasses and touched them gently together. A call to prayer began. Distant voices chanted through crackling speakers. We cupped our hands around our sweet coffee and drank.