Amman Through The Eyes of Toleen Touq
Toleen Touq is an independent cultural operator based in Amman, Jordan. Since 2009 she has directed and curated the yearly “Hakaya” storytelling and performance festival with Al-Balad Theatre and in 2010 was outreach and education manager at the first “Karama” human rights film festival. She is also engaged in initiating projects and programs that expand the relationship between arts, culture and politics through audio interventions, public discussions and social activism. In 2011 she initiated the “Complaints Choir” project in Jordan, and was the awarded the Apexart Franchise program grant to curate the exhibition 'We have woven the motherlands with nets of iron'. She just completed a blogging residency with the Manifesta Journal entitled “Monuments of Despair” and was co-curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale project “Key of Return”.
Get in touch - @toleentouq
- What are your earliest memories of Amman?
Taking a polaroid picture with the tiger of the Russian Circus close to our house. Atta Ali. Family gatherings with my great grandmother. Climbing pine trees. Attempting to run away on foot from Tla' Ali to the airport with my cousins (we were six). Na'our. The Ka'ek seller by my grandmother's house in Weibdeh. مدينة الجبيهة الترويحية .
- Many of us have a complex relationship with our city, tell us about yours.
Actually, for the longest time my relationship with Amman was a sheltered one; that of dreamy observations and slight detachment. I was hiding away in my books, music and daydreaming. In a way it was naive, but that type of relationship and distance helped keep my young self away from the some of the ugly sides like identity politics. I grew up in a mixed household, which was important for my later view of the city and its people. I spent a good portion of time outside of Amman, preserving that view, but when I came back as an adult my relationship with Amman became more complex (and interesting). It has developed into a love and hate relationship; I am endlessly curious about the stories of this city and I feel I am part of them now; the subcultures, the urban regeneration, the sociological changes; and the arts and cultural directions we are taking. Everyday its challenging to witness the frustrations of the city with all the thievery, abuse and struggle it is facing.
- Tell us about your work in Amman, as an artist, a curator and an art director.
One of the best things about this city is that there the opportunity to do so much. Over the past few years I've helped initiate several artistic and social manifestations; the Aat network of women artists, Israeli Apartheid Week and the People's Choir. I also run the yearly Hakaya storytelling festival that brings back the essence of traditional and contemporary storytelling through performance, education and community work. This being one of the projects I'm most proud of, I use conceptual storytelling in other art forms; creating images of Amman and its environment through sounds and text. Last year I co-curated an exhibition at the Giza train station which was an amazing experience, part of which involved transporting audiences from Amman to Giza using the original Hejaz train wagons. It's not that easy to do all of this, but we are working as a sector to improve funding opportunities and to critically approach social issues through art.
- Where are your favorite spots in the city? Where do you go when you want to be alone? Where do you go when you want to be with people?
My favorite spots are the empty plots of land. I also love the stairs of old Amman, and the Circles. Amman is a big 'town', but unlike towns it doesn't have quiet natural spaces so if I want to be alone I stay at my rooftop home. The people here are amazing and I think I survive Amman the most because of them. I would head to Jabal Amman and Jabal Al-Weibdeh to meet them because that's where social interactions are not (so much) about consumption.
- If you could live anywhere in Amman, where would it be and why?
In a shoddy apartment downtown, to find more secrets.
- How has the art scene changed in Amman over the past few years?
The art scene has grown tremendously over the past 5-7 years. We have much more production, more so in film, theatre and urban music. Artists are also starting to reference their local histories and contemporary struggles much more, which makes the quality of their art work critical and relevant. The conceptual / visual arts scene and literature still suffer, we have a long way to go there. There are also more initiatives popping up, and more collaborations between artists, spaces and initiatives. Amman has become vibrant and I think I can be optimistic in thinking that social divides are slowly being broken and there is more concerted effort for non-elitist programs in the city, I hope.
- What is something about the Amman of the past that you miss?
Amman is changing at such a rapid pace that I'm not sure there's room or time for nostalgia anymore.
- Some people say Amman lacks an identity, how do you feel about that?
What is Amman's identity anyway? It's the identity of its inhabitants, and just like them, it harbours many secrets. I disagree that it lacks an identity, I just think one needs to dig a bit deeper to discover it. I feel Amman is a very layered place and you can slowly peel those layers and see more inside. Yes, Amman is like an onion.
- Is Amman a city that is open to diversity? Why or why not?
In its demographics, definitely. It is accepting of people form different backgrounds, but without really celebrating it. This is where the problem lies.
- How else do you interpret Amman?
One sensory element that I feel is very strong here is sound. I know most people complain about it but I love the sound of the gas canister car. The audio spectrum is special: birds, horns, laughter, screams, clicking cutlery, kids playing in the streets, the call for prayer, and now, more and more, the people chanting for change.