Alistair Wilson talks about his exploration in Jordan
I recently watched a great film about a group of Syrian refugee women reproducing a play written in the aftermath of the destruction of the ancient City of Troy.
Obscure history lesson and powerful story aside, Queens of Syria was a romantic retrospect into my time living in Jordan, highlighting that, in an overall tough three months, a definite positive and romanticized legacy remains. I found myself working in an Arabic language school, juggling Arabic lessons with other part time work and an active social life. I went there without any prior experience or much knowledge about the Middle East, and although it was jarring at times, Jordan was an enlightening entry to the Arab world.
In my previous reflections of cities, I have focused on the city’s own characteristics; what grants it life or sets it apart from other global metropolises both positively and negatively. But with Jordan, my memories weren’t stylised by the narrow, tumbling streets of Amman, but instead by just living in that place at that time. Hong Kong was an exploration of what a living space can achieve in infrastructure, environment, and general density. Amman, on the other hand, was an exploration of what I need in a city, which I’m grateful for. Turns out it’s about more than hummus and religious expression.
“The horizon looks like a carpet laid out over a messy teenager’s bedroom floor”
But I’ll save the deep reflection for any post-Stella Artois conversations that come my way. Instead some context on Amman’s distinct charm is required. Amman is Jordan’s cultural, financial, and political capital city that has no fitting comparison within Jordan’s borders. Its population stands at 4 million, half of the Jordanian population, and exists between/on top/under 14 peaks (Jabals). The horizon looks like a carpet laid out over a messy teenager’s bedroom floor, and a topological map of the city resembles a madman’s attempts at drawing circles. The immediate impacts of this are a lot of walking up and down steep gradients, a sudden hatred of steps, and an inclination for an excellent pair of climber-like calves. The city’s many districts and neighborhoods are organised by a series of roundabouts (duwars) that serve as local landmarks in navigating the maze of tarmac. Street names are unimportant and finding your destination is more a test of description and intensive praying (for atheists too).
I found myself in Jabal al-Weibdah, the artsy district of Amman just 20 minutes’ walk (downhill) to the city centre (al-Balad). Al -Weibdah was also home to Amman’s fairly tight knit foreign community as well as many cafes, bars and restaurants that serve Amman’s trendy and young population. Al-Weibdah was no doubt a fun place to live, besides its rampant gentrification, serving as a transparent but enveloping bubble on all who enter. One quickly finds oneself surrounded by English speakers, beers and a network of friends and acquaintances stretching across the world. Bursting the bubble is difficult, thanks to the overlap of employment opportunities, social gatherings, and simple limitation on things to do.
What there is to do is distinctly shaped by the Arab love for what I can only describe as basking; to sit/lean/lie any time of day upon any surface in any location, accompanied by talking and Marlboros. It’s a universal sport, particularly practiced by young people (shabab) on the side of Amman’s many straddling hillsides and Jabals – from twilight until the late evening. It can occur right outside a flashy new burger joint or on the steps of a centuries old café in the city’s Old Town. Basking intertwines with the Jordanian affinity for cars too, the need for expensive cafes superfluous when your shisha pipe (argila) and coffee pots can be propped up comfortably on the pavement. Jordanians know how to relax, as much as they know how to discuss, be it politics, life, or religion.
The pillar of religion in daily Jordanian life is unsurprisingly central and complex. Indeed, the call to prayer (adhan) echoes around Amman 5 times a day, the minarets of mosques (masjids) gently poke the horizon and routines affiliated with Islam are prevalent. Yet Jordan’s complex religious experience left me dazed with the daily dichotomies of religious belief and social norms. Regardless of faith or political ideologies, Arabs share some underlying characteristics that may initially appear as religious but are in fact societal. Atheists, communists, and Christians repeat the same charming vernacular of Arab slang with their Muslim counterparts, despite their religious connotations. Shouts and scribbles of ‘yalla!’ (lets go!), ‘walla!’ (I swear!) and ‘a-keed!’ (of course!) fill the street sounds and graffitied spaces of Amman, just as ‘oh my god’ occupies English slang – obvious religious connection but detached. Arab humour is continually self-deprecating too, poking fun at even the most serious of religious and regional affairs with a black humour explored best through the grandiose world of memes. Check Muslim Lad or StepFeed for the daily dose of reality that’s omitted in the two-dimensional media picture of Arab conflict and turbulence. StepFeed is invaluable as a cultural periscope, equating the Middle East’s BuzzFeed equivalent.
“Sit/lean/lie any time of the day upon any surface in any location, accompanied by talking and Marlboros”
This may seem self-evident, between dividing high religious teaching and how the majority of Muslims deal with daily life problems, but within such an unrealistic and xenophobic Western media outlook, these facts are lost. It’s embarrassing to think that it took a flight to Jordan to see that Muslims really don’t robotically drop into prayer when adnan is heard, or that faith is an uncompromising, unquestioned part of their daily life. It’s a complex relationship between society, family (which occupies a far larger part of every Arab’s life than in the West) and self.
Beyond religion, Jordan’s political and cultural identity is changing too, along with the rest of the modernising Arab world. Further economic connectivity between Jordan, the Middle East and global financial hubs have increased Jordan’s geopolitical standing in region but it comes with its own set of changes. More and more Jordanians are cutting against the grain, adopting English as their primary tongue, dropping their culinary traditions and protesting what it means to be Arab. This is not inherently positive or negative, indeed cultures are always evolving, but it left an ignorant Westerner like me confused to see Mac & Cheese replacing Mansaf (Levantine lamb with yoghurt) and the echoes of adnan competing with The Weeknd on Amman’s streets. But wouldn’t it be weird if my two dimensional preconception was wholly true? Jordan is an a-typical choice of destination, but upon retrospect, it transpired to be short, jarring tour into the heart of Middle Eastern culture, abridged with the best lesson possible on the fundamental separation between religion and society.
I also learnt how to make shisha like a boss, walla.