By Mike V. Derderian
March 3, 2010
Anyone turning the pages of a tourism guide would easily know that Amman is the capital city of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
But to many Jordanians it is the city, where they were born and raised, where their lives thrive, and their stories are exchanged and written.
In the past few years a new term was coined to describe the dwellers of Amman, which has always been the center of unity for many Jordanians, including the one who is writing this piece.
The term is: Ammanites. Those are the brave men and women of the city, where they live, happy or sad, earn a living after shedding many a blood and sweat, experience their own colorful culture with a mix of Western influence, and eventually like everyone else raise their own offspring within its mountainous boundaries.
But what can a person visiting Amman for a few days or more do? Easy, when in Amman do as the Ammanites would do: visit all the places they grew up around and that they cherished over the years; and most importantly mingle with them.
The first place that one should visit in Amman is Al Balad (down town). There you must visit Hashem’s, where a hot Fava beans plate along with Homous and a platter of chopped tomatoes, onions and mint, would most certainly tickle your palate. There you can also read the dozen framed articles hanging on its walls, and that describe its unique place in the hearts of people passing through Al Balad.
Just across the street from the postal office one can visit Al Istiklal Bookshop, where time old notebooks, pens, erasers, rulers and drawing pads—my favorite buy—are found. Next to the bookshop’s steep staircase lies Jafra, a cultural café frequented by Jordanians seeking good food, hot drinks, nargiles and a shelter from the hustle and bustle of Down Town Amman.
Search the Greater Amman Municipality’s website, http://www.ammancity.gov.jo, and you will find out that Jordanians used to refer to Amman as Al Madinah, which is one of the twenty-seven regions constituting Jordan.
Amman has always been a center for arts, culture and literature. It is now filled with over 30 cultural venues, ranging between art galleries, cultural centers and art-house-cum-cafes. The new generation is more and more realizing the necessity of chronicling the tales of its old inhabitants and examining its unique architecture.
Now back to our walk through the crowded streets of Al Balad. Traveling Al Balad should be done on foot so park your car somewhere between the 1st circle, Rainbow Street and Jabal Amman and start walking downwards.
Once you get there you will be amazed how the old embraces the new. There you will see people from all walks of life crowding its streets. Some are there to do business and shop, while, others are there to enjoy what a simple walk in the street has to offer: A crowded sanctuary amidst faded facades that surround old streets, where the scent of vegetables, spices and Jordanian air greet one’s sense of smell.
If you find yourself facing an ancient Roman edifice surrounded by haphazard buildings then you have reached the Roman Amphitheater. Mind you it is not the only one as Amman, and its surrounding areas, was an ancient Roman colony. If you have the time you must visit Jerash, and of course the non-Roman historical and archeological wonder Petra.
After ascending the steps of the Roman Amphitheater in Al Balad a person can visit the Folklore Museum, where one can learn about the old faces and traditions of Amman’s people. I remember visiting it back in the 80s part of a school trip. It is until this day unchanged; even the artifacts and the wax puppets are still the same. Sadly the museum lost its past glamor and is almost forgotten.
Facing the silent stones of the Roman Amphitheater that echo of voices, whenever a concert or a festival is held there, is the Citadel. Perched over a flat hill the white stones of this area can be seen from anyplace in Amman. Artificial lights accentuate the whiteness of its stones no sooner darkness spreads its cool blanket over our skies.
The Citadel is a magical place, where one can stand and gaze in bewilderment at the cascading edifices of Amman’s asymmetrical buildings. There Amin Matalaqa’s Captain Abu Raed, the main character in his celebrated 2007 movie, sat on a large wall to tell his fascinating stories to enthused children, who were eager to grow up and travel the world the same way he did, and become accomplished storytellers as he was.
From a distance Jordan’s largest flag can be seen moving to the voiceless tempo of the wind that sweeps through our nights. Since its erection it became part of a fascinating ancient background.
Now, what really amazes me is how some Jordanians storytellers fail to acknowledge Ashrafia, and other areas around Amman, as a center of fascinating stories. Maybe they just haven’t lived there to know any story. For me this area holds Hay Al Arman (the Armenian neighborhood), where Armenians lived upon arriving to Jordan after their Diaspora back in 1915. It is also the area where the first Armenian church and school were built.
Every Friday my parents used to send me and my sister to one of the Armenian clubs that exist there to be part of the Armenian scouts. I remember the warm Friday afternoons that I’ve spent there playing basketball and buying ice-cream from Abu Majdee’s grocery store that now evolved into a supermarket.
There we used to have verbal fights with neighborhood boys, who came for a friendly game of football and basketball. Losers simply cannot tolerate the bragging of winners. Why brag winning when you commend a good game. I cannot remember how many games I lost but to tell you the truth it never irked me as I always had more fun playing basketball than actually wining; still that doesn’t mean I didn’t block people thanks to my good jump. Gone are those days.
If you are passing by Wadi Abdoun on a Friday just take a look to the overhanging facades that are built on cascading cliffs and you’ll see a dozen or more kites adorning the clear blue skies. Children living in areas like Al Ashrafia, and who haven’t forgotten the taste of handmade toys, go through a lot to get these colorful kites, made out of paper, wooden reeds and strings, up in the air.
Why am I not referring to the so called divide between Eastern and Western Amman that so many Jordanian storytellers refer to in their stories? Well, that’s another story but I’ll tell you this: I did not live under a tin roof like so many veteran Jordanian writers claim. I grew up in an apartment situated in a building on the first leg of Wadi Abdoun and I used to fly kites like any other Jordanian kid from Eastern Amman. Does that make me any less of an Ammanite or a storyteller for that matter? No…
Now Al Ashrafia is hardly a walking area as its steep serpentine streets would tire the most experienced pedestrians and walking enthusiasts. Ever tried walking uphill from Ra’s Al Ein to Abu Darweesh mosque? I remember a boy, who didn’t want to spend his allowance on a taxi fare, so instead he went uphill and enjoyed a very grueling climb.
Our Amman was originally built on seven hills, but it now spans an area of over nineteen hills, each known as a Jabal meaning mountain.
Speaking of Jabals, if you don’t visit Jabal Amman then you have hardly visited any place in Amman especially Rainbow Street. Around each corner in Jabal Amman you will find an art gallery or a café adorned with paintings.
Back in the 80’s Rainbow Street was the place to be. There you can have an enjoyable stroll through its narrow, very recently cobbled, streets. If you smell something good on your way then it must be the smell of Falafel Al Quds. All you have to do is buy a sandwich or two and continue walking in any direction as on your way you will stumble upon an array of cafes and interesting hangouts like Books@cafe.
One should not forget to visit Souk Jara, which must be the niftiest flea market in the world, on Thursdays and Fridays. If you want another flea market, with a different feel, go to Souk (market) Al Abdali or Al Joura, which translates to The Pit, on a Friday morning.
Now let us move on from familiar places to familiar faces: Ours. If people want a Jordanian character study they must see Emad Hajjaj’s caricatures that will assist them in knowing more about us.
Hajjaj’s work tackles everything from daily life, social norms, art, government performance, parliament, love and hate, taboos, the do’s and don’ts, and of course what it is like to be a Jordanian.
His main and loud mouthed character Abu Mahjoub is most certainly one of us but as they say in Arabic not all your fingers are the same. To the chagrin of foreigners Hajjaj’s work is in Arabic but maybe one day he will eventually translate his valuable canon into English.
Over the years the Jordanian cartooning scene witnessed the emergence of amazing Jordanian caricaturists and cartoonist like Omar Al Abdallat, Mahmoud Hindawi, Mahmoud Al Rifai and Osama Hajjaj with works that also reflect our inherent nature.
It is hard to sum up all the places, alleys and neighborhoods that you have to visit in Amman. Whenever I have the chance to do so you will come across a blog post here.
What you can do until then is to allow your eyes and ears to guide you through our streets. If you are not able to do so ask a friend, who knows the city by heart, to show you around. Wish I had the time to accompany you but I walk alone; sometimes accompanied by my Canon AV- 1, which is hanging from my shoulder, waiting for “the” right photograph and its elements to fall into place, the same way the right words find their way into a paragraph.
If you are here, and most probably reading this, why don’t you celebrate Amman’s coming of age with us by reading its stories and of course creating your own the same way I am doing.
Amman is my New York evermore… I am one of its children and no more…
Photograph taken by a CANON AV-1 by Mike V. Derderian