One of the most endearingly frustrating aspects of life in Jordan is what I like to call the fratah crisis. Fratah is the local word for change – the money kind, like coins and one-dinar bills – and fratah is somehow always in short supply.
Take one morning’s ride in a service taxi, for example.* The front-seat passenger has only a five-dinar bill. A ride costs 45 qirsh (.45 JD).
“Do you have change?” the passenger asks the driver. He sounds friendly and polite.
The driver sucks in his breath sharply and lets out a briefly explosive sigh. He has just collected fares from other passengers and deposited coins and bills into the little flip compartment just above the vents on his dashboard. The compartment is positively bursting with an obvious stash of ones. And when he slams the top closed, coins inside rattle and jingle.
“Really, I don’t have change,” the driver says wearily.
I can scarcely believe my ears; I’m sure the passenger in the front seat couldn’t either. Unless I’ve suddenly begun hallucinating, all the change needed and quite a bit more were crammed into the dashboard compartment.
Thus begins the persuasion. “I really have nothing smaller,” the front-seat passenger says, not quite pleading.
The driver sighs, as if someone just asked him to pick his teeth for him, or something equally foul. He then yields and wearily extends his arm, popping the top of the cash compartment and pulling out four crumpled ones, then a half JD. “It’s nothing,” he mutters, a pained expression still etched in his squinted eyes, to the grateful passenger. But why?
Sometimes the fratah crisis is real, and vendors really don’t have change. Those occasions may send you to three or more stores, roadside food stands, or random individuals standing on the street in order to break your 10-dinar bill so you can grab a taxi, or pay the driver of the one you just got out of, because he, of course, had no change. Even at seemingly well-regarded establishments, a lack of fratah can truly be a crisis. If you have a large bill, say a fifty, you’d best go to a chain store, like a large grocery store. I find that a good way to gauge a venue’s fratah likelihood is whether they give out receipts. In fact, sometimes I find myself deciding where to buy something based on how badly I need change and the odds that a store will have it.
On a recent excursion to a small but well-kept market that stocks the usual chips, yogurt, household cleaning supplies, and cigarettes, I tried to break a larger bill, a fifty. I could see a stack of twenties, tens, fives and ones sitting in the cash drawer when the cashier rang up my small containers of yogurt. Perfect, I thought.
The man at the register took one look at the bill I offered him. “You don’t have change?”
I lied through my teeth. “Nope, I swear, unfortunately.” I was not going to lose this fratah battle. I had a five, and I owed just over one dinar, but for a taxi I needed to take later on, a five could present more trouble than negotiating now would.
“It’s hard for me to give change,” the man said.
“I can see the change right there,” I said, and pointed at his open cash drawer.
“I need that,” he said.
“I need change,” I responded.
Like the service taxi driver, he scoffed slightly, then caved, pulling a few bills from his ample stash to help break my fifty.
This story is cross-posted with permission on the author’s blog, elizabethwhitman.wordpress.com.
*This story may sound embellished. It is not. I witnessed it just the other week.
If anyone can explain this fratah crisis, please do! Comments welcome below.