In the Red Sea port of Aqaba, you can relive the romance of Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures on and off film. You’ll discover the CIA-esque intrigue of being able to see Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the same spot. Indeed, it is a grand opportunity to take in a vista of all of the Middle East mess at once. Then there is the pristine diving in the Red Sean and taking advantage of the luxury resort boom—or ordering the delectable local dunise and faridi fish eying you at Ali Baba Restaurant while the camels eye the tourists. All these are legitimate reasons to go to Aqaba, reasons that bring thousands of foreign visitors a year.
But when I ask Jordanians what excites them about Aqaba, they often tell me it’s the nuts. Nuts don’t have a double entendre in Arabic, so they don’t mean the opportunity to hangout with crazy people. That is unless you find it crazy to buy bags of nuts by the kilo on a beach vacation. But that’s what most Jordanians do when they go to Aqaba.
All these fine nuts are purchased in the downtown shopping souq at the Al Shaab shop. Actually, the Al Shaab shops. There are eight branches to choose from in Aqaba, and conveniently six of them are on the same street selling the exact same nuts in the exact same heated cases and bins. Three of them are separated by only one other shop. It’s a business model that should defy logic, and yet every one of the stores is teaming at all times with customers, who eventually leave with kilos of the nuts, seeds and Turkish delights stuffed into the shops’ bright signature red and yellow plastic bags. The bags show up everywhere in Aqaba in their post nut-transporting duties as all-purpose totes.
The mom and pop nut shops that are scattered across the souqs and malls of the Middle East make you feel like a kid in a candy store– but with nuts and seeds instead. There are bins and bins of intrigue, each bin magically keeping the nuts toasty warm and freshly roasted. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and of course the king of nuts, the pistachios—in nearly countless flavored mixes and matches. There are pure pistachios or pistachios tossed with almonds and hazelnuts and cashews. Or in another combo, the cashew may reign supreme, with the hazelnut coming in second. The almond can be the leader of the pack, too. Sometimes the nuts are salted, sometimes raw, sometimes smoked.
Like everywhere else in the world, peanuts are price reducer. But the biggest way to cheapen the bag is the addition of pumpkin seeds. These are the big, salt crusted white seeds that Arabs seem to be able to crack open for the meat and still spit out the shell while doing just about anything, especially playing backgammon, drinking coffee, and smoking shisha in a café in Aqaba. The also popular watermelon seeds require even more crack and spit skills, which is why the uninitiated just chew on them, like me. I blame my incompetence on the fact that I didn’t grow up with nuts serving the same purpose as my Arab relations. They don’t say it, but nuts are a habit at a gathering of people, like coffee is, but they are also a way to pass the time–crack, spit, chew. And in so much of the Arab world it feels like people are gathering to pass the time because there is nothing else to do with time. And maybe nuts provide an entertaining diversion–yes, sometimes it’s a fun challenge yourself to see if the seed will actually come out of the shell.
The peanut is often in the mix, but it is actually a bean, and in Arabic fuol Sudani (Sudanese bean) is the word for peanuts. And it’s not the only bean in the shop. There is seemingly not enough you can do with a chickpea. Those craving sweets can enjoy the pink and blue sugared edomi, which are dry roasted chickpeas. I prefer them salted than sweet. Beyond the crunch, there is the comforting pasty quality. For more sweet, there is of course the sugar coated Jordan almonds, which do not have the descriptor “Jordan” in Jordan or the rest of the Middle East, where they are ubiquitous on silver platters at weddings and holidays. For an even bigger sweet tooth, raha, a range of rose and orange blossom flower infused Turkish delight-esque squares packed with pistachios and walnuts, is the big seller. I like them best when they are rolled up in dried apricot wrappers. But my favorite is semsemia, the squares of gooey or crunchy toasted sesame with sugar and honey. Unlike nuts in a bag, semsemia is a comforting sugar rush that makes you want to go out and conquer the world.
Today, peanuts are also sold in candied form, which is not traditional. Peanuts are named for the Sudanese peddlers who once roamed the streets of the Levant and North Africa in more peaceful times selling hot peanuts. I’m less sure why pistachios are called fousto halabi (which means Aleppo nut), because they mostly come from Iran. But I can only imagine how much more confusing it would be for Asians to find a variety of coated peanuts and nacho-flavored crunchy balls, called Asian crackers or Japanese crackers or Chinese crackers, depending on the shop. And the American corn nut and wasabi peas are mainstays these days.
So the Jordan nut shop has globalized itself. There are ever more ways to pass the time. As I watched people get onto the bus as we were leaving Aqaba, their overnight suitcases sometimes seemed dwarfed by the kilos and kilos of Al Shaab nuts they were also toting. On the four-hour drive back to Amman as my Kindle bounced around on my lap, I heard people munching on Al Shaab nuts and seeds. No one else had a book. As I heard a kid get yelled at by his mom for trying to open a closed pistachio with his teeth, I thought about how if those eight Al Shaab stores were bookstores, they’d be empty. And thus the nuts win in the Middle East.