By Mike Derderian
Star Staff Writer
The only words that came to my mind as I ascended the unclean steps leading to Cinema Rivoli’s hall were Dante Alighieri’s “abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Standing amidst suggestive and provocative posters of films, displaying men and women in affectionate caresses, I paid JD one for a screening ticket.
A man standing at the doorway told me to go up a narrow stair situated at the left of the entrance that overlooked the crowded street of Saqef Al Sel. Seated on a chair in the middle of the second floor lobby, a bulky man jokingly asked me if I had bombs in the bag or if I was wearing an explosive belt. After groping the bag without opening it, the unshaved person “the fatso as he is referred to later” then gestured me to the stairwell saying, “its upstairs.”
After one more flight of stairs I started to hear the faint moaning of a woman but to my surprise it was not coming from a pornographic film. All was pitch black—a normal side effect that accompanies those who step in from the light and into darkness—an atmosphere that made me fumble for a place in a hurry.
Before I knew it, I was sitting in the third or fourth raw. The stench of feces and urine filled the place and as my breath grew heavy I had an urge to leave. White tile glimmered at one corner of the hall, where bright sunlight penetrated.
It was almost 2:00 pm when I entered The Rivoli. Time went by and I was still watching a movie in which two women and a man were being terrorized by a mean biker on a beach. I took another look at my mobile’s clock: It was 3:00 pm; I’ve been inside over an hour.
Anyone expecting a hardcore picture from the very moment they enter the cinema is in for a surprise. The faint moaning of a woman turns out to be nothing but the hushed squeals of a low grade actress in a French dubbed B-movie.
Another French-dubbed movie but this time a Martin Campbell film entitled Defenseless starring Barbara Hershey was now playing. Was everything I heard about these places false? If so why were those people sitting there watching a French dubbed movie that I myself barely understood?
An old man, who was smoking a cigarette, was eyeing a boy sitting next to him. At first the boy changed seats and went back a few rows—apparently refusing the man’s advances. A few minutes later they weren’t there.
Less than half way through the film the flash of neon lights suddenly went on and the whole place was pulsating with light. What came to my vision was the following: bitten sunflower seeds scattered everywhere, seats covered with a nauseating black layer of dry dust and scum, a tainted floor, a bloody-red colored center stage covered with a glossy matter and men, who lay motionless the same way an animal stands still when facing the strong beam of a flashlight.
A well-built clean-shaven old man—probably at his late 50s with combed fair hair—then entered the hall announcing it was time for refreshments. It was an intermission and apparently everyone was obligated to buy something whether they liked it or not.
“You … Abbas do you want tea or cola? I have Sunflower seeds and if you want we also have sandwiches,” the craggy faced old man announced addressing the seated men. “Anyone who needs to go to the bathroom can use the big fat man in the lobby instead of a toilet,” the old man said before bursting into laughter.
“All those whose zippers are open close them its tea time,” remarked the man, who spent 25 minutes distributing and charging money for the beverages and seeds, “ok in about three minutes boys you will watch a lot of jackhammer action.”
It was 3:40 pm when the projectionist stopped the previous film and activated another: a hardcore porn movie. The whole spectacle went on for almost half an hour, during which the scenes were automatically reshuffling.
Suddenly an abrupt edit switched the audience’s attention to a scene in a club, where everyone was dancing salsa after which a cheap fight scene ensued. They were playing an ordinary B-movie. In a cat and mouse game whenever the people responsible for running such theatres receive a tip that the Recorded Audiovisual Materials Department (RAMD) at the Audiovisual Commission will knock on their doors they simply switch CDs.
“Once that happens it is impossible to find where they hid the pornographic films. Such places have very intricate corridors and hidden rooms that no one knows of because they are very old,” commenced Engineer Mohammed Al Shawakfa, the director of the RAMD.
Al Shawakfa’s explanation is not far from the truth for anyone entering such places will see for himself how impossible it is to find their way out without help. There are three more cinemas known for screening pornographic pictures in the Downtown Area: Cinema Al Hussein, Cinema Zahran and Rhaghadan Cinema that was closed that day.
Cinema Zahran is bigger than the Rivoli and anyone who enters there will marvel at its construction and décor that reflects a prestigious past—no matter how distant it may be by now.
“Cinema Zahran, Cinema Al Hussein and Al Khayam were the biggest cinemas in Amman. I remember going there in my youth back in the 1960s. It was also a place where families can go to have an enjoyable outing which is not the case nowadays,” said Michel, who is in his late fifties and remembers watching black and white Arabic and Foreign movies at Cinema Al Zahran that was “quite luxurious even for its time.”
Luxury now rings of nothing but a callous present brought about by ill management, low maintenance and its inability to compete with state of the art cinema houses in Amman back then and the time being.
Over the years Zahran Cinema attained a morbid and eerie atmosphere that is revealed to anyone, who scales its steep stairs and goes beyond its ticket box, which is nothing but a table on which a bespectacled man who charges you JD 1,5.
A hanger like screening hall that lost its glitter a long time ago and replaced it with a light mossy undertone filled with rusty metal chairs is what is left. Less than thirty people were seated. Some were reading newspapers, some snacking on something they bought on their way and some were conversing with their friends. Some were alone.
The old man in charge of the buffet came into the hall and drew the curtains to block light from entering. The amplifiers hanging on the wall all of a sudden gave way faint static. Words filtered and it took a few minutes before shapes began to formulate on the big screen.
A man and two women were huddled around an old man, who was in bed. Looks like a normal family reunion right! Wrong. One of the blond ladies a few minutes later appeared in her under wear talking to someone on the phone in Dutch. Two minute later a couple were copulating and I realized that I am watching porn movie with a strange man sitting next to me.
“You don’t need to get mixed up with such people. It will bring you nothing but headache besides no video or DVD storeowner will give you porn movies unless you were one of his good and trusted customers,” a young Jordanian, who preferred anonymity, said.
Pornographic outlets are not the only things that RAMD has to deal with, for in addition to this underworld of porn that harbors perversity, prostitution and even pedophiles (which comes part of the Internal Ministry’s jurisdiction), they have to keep an eye for pornographic CD and DVD film peddlers, who shamelessly flaunt their goods in broad daylight.
“Why go to such places when I can buy CDs? When you have the Internet you can download lots of stuff from the privacy of your home computer,” a man who refused to give his name said.
“I know a man whose face looks like something hit by a truck but once you get to know him you find out that he is a nice guy,” a Jordanian, who added that porn suppliers double their activities after nightfall.
Some of the people The Star met with including Al Shawakfa agreed that the people behind peddling pornographic CDs in the streets are mostly men, who do not hesitate to cut anyone who dares stand in the way of their livelihood. Of course we bought a few CDs and upon inspecting them, we enjoyed watching a Hindi film and listened to a collection of the latest Arabic musical hits.
“It not that we are sitting here not doing anything but it is just as we have our ways they have theirs. These places are like fortress and by going there you risk getting stubbed. That is why we go accompanied by police and personal from public defense, “Al Shawakfa explained, further adding that those people would do anything to defend such a profitable income.
“What matters most is having evidence to give the public prosecutor and our problem is that no sooner we reach the cinema everything would be gone…cleaned out,” Al Sawakfa exclaimed, who also said that such cinema are also found in places in Zarqa and Irbid.
This piece was published in 2006 and was edited by Walid Kalaji without whom I would have never scratched the skin to reach the mettle. I added the V a few years later as a tribute to my amazing father.
“Fail” digital art by SARDINE (Mike V. Derderian). The reason why I called it “Fail” is because obviously someone failed in stopping the underground activities of these movie theatres instead of turning them into cultural-community hubs that would benefit local artists.