Seeing and Listening to Amman

26 November 2015

By Christine Mady - Beirut


Writing about my experience in exploring Amman in May 2012, is like narrating the tale of invisible cities by Italo Calvino. It is as though I arrived at one place, and left at a completely different one after the four day visit organised by Rawan Attour, Raghda Butros, Rami Daher, Naheer Abu Obeid, Mai Awawdeh and Mohammad Kanakri. Although the decision to bring a group of urban planning professionals, academics and concerned individuals together was foreign to the city, the essence of the visit was orchestrated by a group of its urbanites, and to some extent enhanced by the Ammanis themselves.

What initially seemed to be an endless sea of whitewashed four storey constructions had later re-emerged as tapestry of various colors and intricate details, each having a story behind its existence. However, the endless blanket of built-up spaces and meandering streets seemed to closely follow and resemble the geological layers of the hills on which it stood.

I will attempt to redraw the itinerary that led to this exploration of Amman in the coming paragraphs. The first encounter with the city was left to our own decisions. Strikingly, that meant taking the easy way out after a day’s travel, and going to an introverted shopping mall not far from the hotel. At this point, traffic congestion, the contemporary architectural language of the shopping mall, and the international names and brands meant that Amman was not much distinguished from any other city in the region. On the second day, the journey through Amman started at the municipality with the 1:1500 model of the city, and consecutive presentations by the local planning authorities. This gave us the framework for the bus tour that followed on that day. During the tour, it was possible to trace our path on the accompanying city map with the marked itinerary. The voiceovers of Rami Daher , Ahmad Humeid, Hazem Zureiqat, and Yusuf Mansur added another layer onto the city: the socio-economic and policy dimensions as well as a chronology of the city’s expansion. We also had several stops along the way, where individual social activities shared their city and city-dweller experiences with us. This overview comprised various parts of Amman and presented their challenges, success and failure stories.

This overarching experience was complemented by the intricately set ‘urban challenges’ journey designed and implemented by Hamzet Wasel. Thus the third day had the effect of a catalyst that allowed the participants to experience various city parts with all their senses, but further get involved with ordinary people in their everyday lives. Here I will permit myself to narrate the trajectory of the ‘green group’ of which I was a team member. Our Amman exploration partners included the light blue, dark blue, red, orange, yellow and gray groups that each had a different destination.

From Hamzet Wasel’s headquarters, equipped with maps, an explanatory text and a lunch bag, we headed to our first destination, which was the Husseini Mosque in ‘Al Balad’. Our missions were rewarded by Amman postcards distributed by a Hamzet Wasel representative at each stop. The first mission was to collect five free objects starting with the Arabic letter “Fa’”. This required that we interact with local merchants, entering spice shops, a falafel shop, and most importantly the vegetable market that was the main source for our objects. Our team came back with a handful of Falafel, Flayfleh, Fasouliya, Foustouq, and Foul, reflecting local and seasonal foodstuff.

Our next mission was the Jabal Al Hussein area, where we had to locate several facilities and functions including: a commercial area; hotel; hospital; school; international institution; cultural institution; transportation location; and a public space. Locating and mapping those functions resulted in further interaction with merchants, students and local residents. Their willingness to help and curiosity to know what we were doing resulted in helping us resolve the second mission.

Our third mission was a visit to the Hijaz Railway Station. There, we had to identify several stops on the map of the railway linking Amman to Madinah in Saudi Arabia. We got assistance from the railway museum displays as well as one employee who was proud to announce that both his father and grandfather worked in the railway and that he is now following in their footsteps. Together with two other colleagues, they were racing to tell us the order of the stations, and give us further detail on what happened at which stop. All through these stops, we were asked to depend on public transport while commuting. We were twice lucky to get a free ride from a kind urbanite who thought it was too hot for us to walk a certain distance in the sun.

Our next destination was in Khirfan Street, and our task was to participate in a ceramic painting exercise in one of the 1940s houses converted into an artist’s workshop. Further, we had the opportunity to meet the artist herself, and see her exhibited work.

Almost six hours went by, and our next mission was to have lunch at an Armenian bakery in Jabal Ashrafieh. There, we had a different experience of the city that was partly altered by the fact that on a Thursday afternoon, even public transport is hard to get hold of. Commuting to ‘Jawharet Armenia’ took us some time, and we missed the opportunity to prepare our own meal. Instead, we were warmly greeted by the bakers and given our choice of meat or cheese snacks. We had our snack on the bakery’s small porch looking onto the street.

What is more relaxing after a long day’s walk than sitting down, interacting with children and watching the sky? If you have not had this opportunity, try to engage in making a kite, and taking the lesson from children! These boys and girls, busy as bees and seriously explaining what we have to do helped us build kites, with colours matching our team colour, in this case green. It was difficult to discern whether the children were more eager to fly the kites with us and show us their skills, or see whether we were able to follow their instructions and succeed in our mission. This adventure did not end here, but rather in climbing up another one of the urban stairs to go to the citadel, the culmination of the day’s journey and the destination for kite testing.

Going up the almost hundred steps was not a linear process of ascending to the top of the hill. It included interaction with the locals whose houses flanked the stairway on both sides, passing by mulberry trees, observing children that had converted the stairs into their play area, and listening to the pride of our young teachers as they went up the stairs and thought it was funny that we could not climb up fast and in one go. Never could one imagine the richness of the experience of going up an Ammani staircase!

Up at the citadel, our young teachers strongly recommended that we each steer the kite and experience the sensation of this hexagon resisting the wind high up in the sky. Our journey ended with a meal at the citadel grounds in the company of our teachers who were buzzing around and competing with each other with the kites. Our kites were echoed on the other hilltops of Amman, and for a split second, it seemed as though each hill top was crowned with colourful birds, hovering over Amman’s hills.

This is the story of going from one place to another, the story of seeing and listening to Amman, rather than watching and hearing about Amman.