Working on Jordan’s Island of Misfit Toys

Amman, Jordan – February 2015

I find work in Jordan with an interesting crew.

After collecting passport stamps for two weeks, I was happy to settle down at a new job in Jordan. This time, I would be working at a hotel, primarily cooking omelets and helping with the breakfast in the morning.

Jordan is a land of refugees. Bordering Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, and bring an hour’s drive from both Egypt and Lebanon, one can see why this stable and moderately prosperous country is a landing spot for those trying to escape violent conflicts. Having business sense, my boss cut down payroll significantly by hiring a combination of war refugees and volunteers for roughly 2/3 of the positions. This made for a diverse and interesting workplace, but also one where much of the staff is disgruntled about formerly working in a professional position, then fleeing their country, landing in Jordan, and suddenly spending their days changing sheets and calling young punks “sir” as they bring them coffee.

As someone who could have been on a flight to California the next day and working the next week, it was initially uncomfortable. I felt dirty knowing that my hipster fantasy of a trip was a hell they were trying to escape from. After getting to know everyone and earning their respect, we began to feel as family and the discomfort died.

I won’t share personal details because they’re none of your business and I won’t describe everyone there… but here are some of the more memorable characters.

We’ll start with my boss. He is a Ammanian and runs the hotel, though his father owns it. He stands all of 5’4″, with captivating eyes, an obnoxious sleeveless vest, and a smile that says he wouldn’t ruin the fun by telling me if my pants were unzipped or something was in my teeth. I loved him immediately.

Among my coworkers, most memorable is a Syrian refugee. He doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak any Arabic so he bridges the gap by saying “Shaku maku Jimmy!” every 30 seconds or whenever one of us enters the room, whichever comes first. Shaku maku is Iraqi slang along the lines of what’s shakin’? or what’s crack-a-lackin’? My name isn’t Jimmy. I brought this upon myself by saying shaku maku to him first, but he took it to amazing heights. I feel bad saying this because he is a great father and would give you the shirt off his back were you in need… but there is zero doubt in my mind that he is the most annoying person born in the latter half of the 20th century. He is waiting to hear back from the Canadien embassy regarding staying in Toronto. I don’t have the heart to tell him how much nicer Vancouver is.

Next up is a former Iraqi Army soldier who also worked with American forces. He originally lived roughly 15 minutes from one of the locations I served in Iraq, close enough that I’ve probably given his son candy at some point in the past. We’re able to talk shop about the same places and some of the same people, which is both really cool and very depressing. Hint: western Iraq isn’t doing so well at the moment. He graduated from the Iraqi military academy and was an officer, swearing he wasn’t in the Ba’ath party, then worked as an interpreter for American forces after the US invasion. One if his brothers worked as a barber on a US base and was murdered for working with Americans. He then found a bullet wrapped in a note that said “LEAVE” on his doorstep. He left with his family before the next morning. He is currently waiting on UN paperwork to legally move to Sweden.

Next, a favorite of mine and most guests, is a Catholic from a Middle East state that isn’t at war. He’s not a religious refugee. He had previously lived in San Diego and could switch his Californian accent on and off, and it was awesome having another (sort of) American to talk with. He never said specifically how he wound up in Jordan, though he had spent a couple years in a Texas prison, undoubtedly hastening the process. He apparently got his US passport yanked and then got kicked out of the country after he divorced his American wife and got his second DUI. He wants to leave Jordan, but I’m unsure where he wants to go as he’s not welcome back in the US and apparently has significant issues in his home country as well.

Then there’s me. I have a master’s degree from a respectable university and have several unique skills and qualifications, yet I’m living in a hotel basement and two of my daily meals are leftovers from the breakfast bar. I share the room in the basement with another volunteer, though they removed the downstairs bathroom for renovation, meaning we have to go to the seventh floor restaurant to pee. The seventh floor doesn’t have a traditional toilet or a shower, so we wait for someone to check out then run in and use their bathroom before housekeeping comes. Removing the shower, toilet, and sink from the basement initially led to flooding, which required us to keep everything on the bed so that it wouldn’t soak.

The bathroom's current state
The bathroom’s current state
The corner of our bedroom
The flooded corner of our bedroom

Two people there have secrets they’re afraid to tell the others. One is a Shi’a, though he was raised in a Sunni area and married a Sunni woman. He practices taqiya, (meaning concealment) a Shi’a concept that allows one to pretend to be of another faith without betraying Shi’ism if their true faith may put them in danger. I still can’t understand why he is so worried about this while living in Amman, but he is persistent and will only whisper when he discusses it.

The second secret… well that one is quite a doozy. I don’t blame him for keeping it hidden, though I imagine it’s quite stressful. No one from Jordan reads this and it’s not connected to my social media accounts, but you’ll have to meet him in person if you want to know.

I work on the island of misfit toys.

Despite all of our differences, we get together twice a day for traditional meals and have become like a big, weird family.


  1. This was one of my favorite articles Jeremy and I completely understand the need to protect people’s identities, secrets especially in such a complicated, complexed world we live in. Keep writing


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